Uninspired Ireland need new game plan for France
Incessant kicking led to a grim contest that bodes ill for next week, writes George Hook
In a dreadful match, Ireland had the expected victory over Italy, whose away record of just one win gave them little hope in Croke Park. The Azzurri were further handicapped by the loss of their influential No 8, Sergio Parisee.
Italy have always been difficult in the first game and decline steadily as the Championship progresses, because of the lack of depth in the squad. But history was soon forgotten as Italy declined a real contest and decided to keep the score down by kicking every ball. It was a game tailor made for a team with a flair for counter-attack.
In contrast, Rob Kearney disdained a running game and kicked with a similar monotony. He was ably supported by Ronan O'Gara and Brian O'Driscoll. It says a lot for the captain's influence that the highest compliments were reserved for his prowess with the boot.
The talking point before the game was whether Declan Kidney would have picked Jonny Sexton in front of O'Gara. The enigmatic Cork coach never gave much away but O'Gara demonstrated in the first 20 minutes that his kicking remained superb and his pass to Andrew Trimble, which led to the first try, was a vintage demonstration of the art. Despite all the hype of back-to-back Slams, Ireland's record in Paris is abysmal and having a fly-half with ice in his veins would surely be a pre-requisite to possible success.
However the Irish back-line can only function if a platform is first established by the forwards.
In that regard Stephen Ferris was sorely missed and Kevin McLaughlin did not function as a ball carrier. The rookie, to be fair, was not eclipsed in that regard by his back-row colleagues, David Wallace and Jamie Heaslip. When one reflects on the awesome physical aggression of the French against the Springboks last November, Ireland could spend much of the game on the back foot next Saturday.
Referee Romain Poite proved himself to be a toothless tiger. The tormenter of Munster against Northampton had a poor match giving Ireland everything and being manifestly unfair to Italy. There were three forward passes in the first Irish try; his yellow card against Gonzalo Garcia for a spear tackle was risible; while Leo Cullen could engage in dangerous activity at the lineout with impunity. Next week, French paranoia could be fuelled as the referee will lecture as if the entire team has a PhD in English studies.
The apologists for the Irish scrum will point to the fact that we were not embarrassed and the Italians were penalised at the set-piece. The conspiracy theorists will feel that the Irish front-row conned the referee. The Irish props went to ground with impunity and the Italians gave up contesting in despair.
Declan Kidney will hope that the old Broadway adage of "poor dress rehearsal, good opening night," will hold good for Paris. His team were unimaginative, refused to take risks and kicked incessantly against a vastly inferior team. The game plan for next week will need drastic revision. Ireland's first-half superiority was based by a chip-kick policy over the onrushing Italian defence.
The successful tactic was rejected in the second half and Ireland were suffocated by defenders in blue. Defenders can be beaten by going over, around or through. In the last 40 minutes Ireland tried none of those and a second-half score line of 6-3 to the home team was predictable.
When Ireland passed the ball, they did so without purpose. In one fruitless endeavour after 15 passes the home team lost 20 metres. The paucity of the Irish plan was evidenced by the number of times Tommy Bowe and Gordon D'Arcy touched the ball. Inexplicably Ireland demonstrated more adventure when Paddy Wallace arrived in place of O'Gara.
The third-choice fly-half has beautifully soft hands and keen appreciation of space. Those skills make him a classic inside centre and he will be hoping for a rapid return to health by Sexton. He can make a bid for the No 12 shirt which, based on yesterday, is not in D'Arcy's hands for certain.
Italy's losses on their own lineout throw almost reached double figures, a failure that invariably leads to a heavy defeat. We went into this match fearful that Ireland would struggle at the set-piece and operate off a low possession base. The reverse occurred but Kidney's team displayed little appetite for anything other than a win at any cost. This game can be viewed as a glass half full or half empty. Kidney and his captain talked of rustiness caused by the rest period over Christmas and just two weeks together, predictably ignoring the parlous state of their opponent's preparation.
Italy once again can feel hard-done-by by officialdom and the game's administration. If the perennial holders of the Wooden Spoon are to be competitive in the Championship, then they must be helped to take part in the Magner's League. The International Rugby Board's fascination with awakening 'sleeping tigers' in China and USA rather than supporting Italy and Argentina could cost the game dear.
Meanwhile, the dream lives on for at least another week. Luck played a vital role in last year's victory. It will be required again if the unlikely prospect of consecutive Grand Slams can be achieved.