Monday 16 September 2019

Tony Ward: It wasn't pretty but it sure was effective

Ireland captain Paul O’Connell fights for the ball with Italy’s lock George Biagi during the opening Six Nations clash in Rome on Saturday
Ireland captain Paul O’Connell fights for the ball with Italy’s lock George Biagi during the opening Six Nations clash in Rome on Saturday
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

This wasn't one for the purists - it wasn't the beautiful game, was never going to be. But what it represented on its opening outing was a squad (and I emphasise that aspect strongly) well prepared, well versed in the individual requirements and collectively putting together a performance of substance. One which tells me after just 80 minutes evidence that here, for sure, is a group destined to be in the shake up for silverware in the coming weeks.

When you play the Italians in Rome, you cut your cloth to measure. It ain't pretty but it's winningly effective and that was Joe Schmidt's Ireland in the Stadio Olimpico on Saturday. Yes England hit the ground running with that impressive showing in Cardiff, but so did we. Not for a minute am I comparing both winning performances as, in respect to the Welsh and Italians, it is not like with like.

What we got from Paul O'Connell and company was a performance high on endeavour but that's a given. More relevantly, it smacked of clinical and patient professionalism, a group fully in tune with the needs of the day and adapting to those demands as it went. We were patient and, for most of a turgid affair with precious little space on offer, were in control of all three key components - territory, possession and tempo.

The scoreline fully reflected what we witnessed. Keeping the Italians to a single penalty kick over 80 minutes in Rome represents some achievement on the road in the opening game. Schmidt will not see it as such, nor should he, but equally he knows that as winning starts go, its pretty close to as good as it gets.

I say as good as it gets because it was nowhere near the level required to beat the French and English over the next fortnight in phase two of operation title defence 2015. There is much work to be done but that has already begun, of that you can be assured. In no way do I mean to be disrespectful to the Azzurri, but you do the Italian job and move on.

While the scrum wobbled a bit in the closing exchanges - and it is most unfair to lay that at the feet of James Cronin alone - there was much satisfaction from a primary job well done with both line-out and scrum providing the platform for the relatively comfortable win that followed.

In individual terms, there were big displays all round. Jack McGrath was outstanding and a very real candidate for man of the match. So too the entire back row, with Jordi Murphy really coming of age and Tommy O'Donnell in very difficult circumstances, likewise. O'Donnell had a storming game ironically helped by that last minute call to action.

By contrast, for Murphy and Ian Keatley there was an upstairs battle to be won ahead of kick-off. They both succeeded admirably.

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Aided and abetted by another powerful performance of outstanding maturity and great common sense from Conor Murray (a definite captain in the making) the 'half-back issue' wasn't one. Keatley started nervously but grew in confidence as the challenge progressed. He is a confidence player if ever there was one and for sure this will have done him the world of good. Whether it's enough to keep him involved for Les Bleus, we will discuss in greater detail in the coming days.

Regardless, he should be mighty proud of this Six Nations debut in Rome. Beyond that, both centres looked strong and full of subtle but inventive running on limited opportunities.

Early days still I know, but the Robbie Henshaw/Jared Payne combination could be set for a decent tenure. Wesley Fofana and Mathieu Bastareaud will bring different demands, but on the Springbok and Italian evidence thus far, the individual and collective in Ireland's midfield looks good.

The manner in which the replacements slotted in seamlessly, and yes the scrum did buckle a bit late on, allied to the composed manner in which we dealt with the O'Brien setback, the early signs are good. It wasn't a title-winning performance nor would we have wanted it to be, but in terms of gathering early winning momentum, it represented mission accomplished.

A 20-plus points difference over the Italians in Rome on the opening day would have been taken by any of the other four participating head coaches. But it wasn't just the win - there was very real substance to it.

We employed two visibly differing game plans before and after the break. In the first, the ball scarcely went beyond the out-half, in the second it was moved from side to side. Not by any means error free, but a sensible and clearly pre-designed strategy nonetheless. Murray's eventual breakthrough try wasn't created in the moment but on the back of the 60 minute slog that went before.

Momentum achieved, our title defence is up and running.

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