Friday 23 March 2018

Phoney war is best forgotten

Steve James at Croke Park

It was not the ritualistic slaughter expected or feared, but nonetheless this was a comfortable and convincing enough victory for the Grand Slam champions to begin their campaign.

It was a minor hurdle cleared before the much bigger one next weekend in Paris. Only then will we discover how heavily the burden of expectation weighs on this excellent Ireland side.

But this was good enough, a success based on a superb lineout and driving game, and a confidence in their structures and plans that oozed throughout the side from the start. They will be disappointed in their second-half performance, not adding a try to their two efforts in the first half, but in truth the game was over as a contest by half-time. And the habitual avalanche of replacements did not help either.

There were some individual contributions to savour. Ronan O'Gara place-kicked flawlessly and generally controlled the game adroitly. If his second-half knee injury is not too serious, Jonathan Sexton might find it difficult to reclaim his place. And scrum-half Tomas O'Leary probed relentlessly and effectively around the fringes, and box-kicked shrewdly. Tommy Bowe chased the latter faithfully.

Brian O'Driscoll was not astoundingly good, but there were moments of magic to remind us that he can be. One in the first half came to nothing, but it was memorable nonetheless. Spotting space inside his own 22 he chipped ahead and gathered, and then put in the most audacious kick off the outside of his right boot, which might have made a try for David Wallace had it remained in play. It truly took the breath away. As did a couple of sublime kicks to the corner in the second half.

Wallace carried strongly in the first half but appeared to fade a little. He will be miffed to have lost an important contact near the Italian line at the end of a scrappy third quarter. He has played better and not earned the man-of-the-match award, as he did yesterday.

On days like this you worry for Italy. This is their 11th campaign. They have won just six matches from 51, and only one away (against Scotland). Yes, France took an age to be competitive after being admitted to this competition, but those were different times.

Professionalism waits for no one. It demands results. And you wonder how Italy can improve. Heineken Cup exposure has not had the desired effect, and the decision not to allow two of their teams into the Magners League is a blow.

Italy looked to their scrum again yesterday, as they always do. Often they opted for scrummages at free-kicks. Such a tactic yielded their first points, but there is little future in such a reliance. And Ireland finished the stronger in that department. So much of the Italian ball was so slow as to be worthless. Their attacking threat remains embarrassing. And their lineout was a shambles.

Back-to-back Grand Slams are notoriously difficult to achieve -- there have only ever been five -- but despite the fact that they have not beaten France in Paris and England at Twickenham in the same season since 1972, Ireland will fancy it. Bring on France now, bring on the real stuff.

Sunday Independent

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