Thursday 22 March 2018

Stand-ins stand out but will stand aside

Keatley and O'Donnell will make way for fit again Sexton and Heaslip

Tommy O'Donnell, Ireland, wrestles with Francesco Minto, left, and Alessandro Zanni, Italy, after the ball was played away from a ruck
Tommy O'Donnell, Ireland, wrestles with Francesco Minto, left, and Alessandro Zanni, Italy, after the ball was played away from a ruck
Ian Keatley, Ireland, is tackled by Matias Aguero, left, and Leonardo Ghiraldini, Italy
David Kelly

David Kelly

SUCH are the endless array of glittering prizes to be unwrapped by the tourist in Rome, it is often the lament that there is simply not enough time for one to complete everything the guide book has to offer.

It is impossible to feel utterly unfulfilled; a lingering sense of unfinished business accompanies the homeward journey as you wonder when, if ever, you may get the opportunity again.

There is too much to do in so little time and you chide yourself for every omission or perceived mistaken turn.

This was no Roman holiday for the Irish rugby team but, nevertheless, a similar sensation of lingering ennui may have added extra mental anguish to their baggage.

Certainly, confirmation from many of the loved-up couples who were here that they had a fine weekend, thank you very much, apart from the rugby getting in the way, hinted at gnawing frustrations all round.

Ireland firmly possess conviction that, a bit like this display, the championship performances will improve as they go on; Schmidt sides are always better in week two.

However, as with many who may never afford the chance to return here again, a couple of the Irish in Australia may wonder when they too, can get their next opportunity; be it Rome, Dublin or wherever.


For Ian Keatley and Tommy O'Donnell, there was little time to make an impression with both men standing in for renowned competitors whose returns are imminent.

Even Keatley, despite a flawless kicking display and his gradual ascension into comfort after an opening ten minutes that threatened to lead his side by the nose towards calamity, knows that Jonathan Sexton will return next week because Ireland are a much better team with him in it.

So too, if Sean O'Brien (below) is fit to return, O'Donnell will exit as he may even do so anyway with Jamie Heaslip's recall.

All either man could do was deliver what was sufficient to the day thereof; that they mildly matched limited expectations should warm all but the coldest of hearts as this soporific fixture reverted to insipid type following the rude interruption of 2013.

"I had a little bit of a shaky first few minutes; understandably I was a bit nervous. Once I got that first kick, and then got myself to the game, I felt comfortable out there. I always find nerves are a good things, it shows you care," surmised Keatley whose fitful control matched his team's rustiness.

"If you're not nervous, there's something wrong with you. I was happy with how the game went. There were one or two things I can work on and hopefully improve."

At least he had time to measure up his significant audition; O'Donnell was flung into Colosseum with literally a moment's notice. The unseemly haste jettisoned any nerves, though.

"I didn't even see it happen myself as we weren't gone in at that stage," he said of O'Brien's fateful mis-step.

"I would have liked to warm up with a bit more intensity as you don't want to flay yourself then go sit on the bench. Also, you didn't have the nerves.

"You weren't building up to the game for the last 48 hours. I knew my role, I had devoured the playbook anyway, so I just had to get in there and make an impact."

As befitting an openside, he was at once top tackler and yet conceded two penalties; his late, gleeful gambol for the line added a neat conclusion to his stint.

"A big part of his thing is how well he prepares so you would have no worries about him coming in at the last minute like that," said his captain Paul O'Connell. "I'm delighted to see him scoring that try as he makes those big carries for Munster all the time."

Each tackle and contact served to mindfully and physically condition him. For Keatley, after some poor passing and kicking betrayed his early efforts, the regularity of three-pointers served to ground him; in truth, he would have prepared to have played his way into the game more adroitly.

"I'd prefer to get ten minutes into the game before but using your metaphor, it does help ... I was asked earlier did the booing put me off. But I didn't hear it, I was just in my little zone.

"That's why you have your processes and your routines, so you have something to go back to when things go wrong. You're not going to ever have the perfect game.

"One or two things will go wrong, you just have to remember you've done a lot of hard work to get to where you are. You just need something to go back to, your routines. That's what I did. I took a deep breath and carried on."

Schmidt, who referenced the fruitless quest for perfection, expected Keatley to do a job and he did so; neither man will offer a conceit that he can immediately offer a challenge to Sexton; instead, the challenge is with himself.

"Johnny has been the number one 10 in Ireland for the last three, four or five years and he's one of the top 10s in the world, like he showed in the Lions.

"Johnny coming back next week is only a good thing, it's going to strengthen our squad. Ireland is a better team when Johnny is in it.

"Johnny has it at the moment but if I just say that Johnny is No 1 choice then I won't improve as a player. If you don't aspire to keep getting up the pecking order you're going to stay the same. I'm going to keep working on my game and hopefully keep putting the pressure on."

Schmidt confirmed this impression. "In the game a couple of times he was a little bit nervous so we'll talk about that but what you can't take away is the experience he has gained from this game and how it will allow him acquit himself."

So too O'Donnell. This time last year, he was poised to become the breakthrough star that Jordi Murphy eventually became; such was his reaction to Ireland demotion that he even lost his Munster spot in Europe.

"Joe gave me the chance last year on previous form and I probably didn't live up to the hype," the Tipp man admitted frankly.

"In fairness, I paid for that but I went away and worked hard. I've been playing well for Munster and working hard, playing 80 minutes and trying to be an all-round number seven.

"If I've given him a headache, fair enough, but come Tuesday you never know what's going to happen. I hope I put my hand up today. We'll see how it goes."

Keatley's journey, which has been more peripatetic and persistent than most, deserved the pot of gold that lay beneath the rainbow spreadeagled over the Stadio.

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