Monday 19 February 2018

Tony Ward: On positive footing for French hurdle

A win in the end -- the result may have flattered Ireland, but it was a win nonetheless. Were the hosts the better team by 30-plus points? No, but they were easily the more accomplished side in a match that lacked any real intensity.

The Italians gave it their all for an hour before falling away. With respect to Jacques Brunel and his intention to get his side playing with more ambition since Nick Mallett's departure, they are no further up that road than before the former Springboks coach left.

Declan Kidney is no fool. He knows we were operating at a different level of intensity when we drilled the Azzurri 36-6 in Dunedin.

On Saturday, we were okay. To read any more into what was, in the end, a comprehensive victory would be setting ourselves up for one mighty fall in Paris in six days' time.

We won, we scored five tries, kicked goals and converted territory into points, but we did so at a level way below what will be required for 80 minutes on Sunday.

On the plus side, we won by 32 points -- 25 coming without reply in the second half. Morale in the camp has received a timely boost, and training this week will have a much better atmosphere than after the agonising loss to Wales.

The preparation for Paris kicks off on a very positive footing. In individual terms, there was much to admire. Stephen Ferris, Paul O'Connell and Rob Kearney stood tallest for me. Gordon D'Arcy, too, had a much more assertive game, while Jonny Sexton kicked his goals and generally marshalled well.

Credit Kidney for utilising his bench well too, with Eoin Reddan and Donnacha Ryan both having an immediate impact when coming on, while Peter O'Mahony tasted this level of rugby for the first time.

I expect Kidney to stick with the same starting 15 for the French clash, although the case for Ryan playing alongside the outstanding O'Connell is proven for me.

I will be surprised if he changes his scrum-half, but Reddan certainly upped the tempo noticeably upon his introduction.

Sean O'Brien had a relatively quiet game, but he is the right man, alongside the awesome Ferris and Jamie Heaslip, for Paris. O'Mahony's turn will come, but the French away is perhaps too big an ask for him right now.


Both wingers, Tommy Bowe and Andrew Trimble, made their mark crossing for three tries between them. Keith Earls also went over and when your wings and outside centre cross for four tries between them, then you know you're doing something right. Yet despite those try-scoring feats -- Tom Court nabbing the other one -- it was the form of the man at the very back that will have lifted Kidney's spirits.

This time last year he had no full-back, now he's got the real deal with Rob Kearney back to his very best. The Leinster full-back is now a true leader in this Irish set-up. On Saturday he was outstanding.

One final positive -- despite the mountain of work still to be done if we are to overcome that daunting Paris hurdle -- and it relates to Sexton and Ronan O'Gara.

This time, unlike recent substitutions when O'Gara arrived alongside Sexton in the final quarter, it was Sexton who continued as goal-kicker.

That is as it should be, with the younger man accepting the responsibility of being the No 1 choice, irrespective of who is on the field beside him. All told, it made for a positive return to Six Nations action for Ireland, but there's no room for complacency -- Kidney's men still have a lot of work to do.

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