Monday 19 March 2018

Comment: Ireland's confidence and assurance was a welcome change

Ireland's number 8 Jamie Heaslip (C) scores their fourth try during the Six Nations international rugby union match between Ireland and Italy at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin
Ireland's number 8 Jamie Heaslip (C) scores their fourth try during the Six Nations international rugby union match between Ireland and Italy at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin
David Kelly

David Kelly

Maybe it’s the weather’s fault. The rain stayed away and the reins were removed too.

Just as Ireland unleashed their hidden attacking demons on Super Saturday last season with the sun on their backs, they chose the warmest day of 2016 to unfurl their attacking game in its fullest, most glorious technicolour.

It’s just a pity that, like last year, they left it late to do so; only this time, there will be no trophy at the end of a season which leaves Ireland empty-handed and steeped in mid-table mediocrity.

But with the tantalising promise that spring promise can lead to summer bloom.

George Fabio Biagi of Italy win a lineout during the RBS Six Nations match between Ireland and Italy at Aviva Stadium on March 12, 2016 in Dublin
George Fabio Biagi of Italy win a lineout during the RBS Six Nations match between Ireland and Italy at Aviva Stadium on March 12, 2016 in Dublin

In some hostelries, Ireland’s majestic fourth try will have folk of a certain vintage boring their company in attempts to stitch it together in a tapestry beginning with THAT 1973 try from the Barbarians.

The capacity crowd were enthralled by the spectacle; or perhaps they were surprised as it has been so rare to see Ireland take flight in such a spectacular fashion.

However, the fact that the fifth try was akin to something from a slapstick comedy rather undermined the extent to how meaningful an exercise this may have been; certainly, it would have been more of a surprise had the Italians not been filleted by any international side worth their salt.

Ireland scored seven tries on this ground two years ago en route to a championship success in Joe Schmidt’s maiden Six Nations campaign so we had an idea what par was.

There was less kicking, today, for sure but a handsome victory against the appalling Azzurri, especially in round four, should be expected for a squad of Ireland’s quality.

This is not their unreasonable demand; to see their national side play with the confidence and assurance of those who are not restrained by pre-planned reins.

On this evidence, relegation from the self-styled but sadly cosseted “best championship in the world” is a must as Italy do not deserve automatic entry for such a non-contest as this.

Still, one must not complain given the absence of a clinical Ireland this championship, as well as a regular lack of any coherent attacking shape; Italy were utterly generous visitors in allowing Ireland to rediscover their confidence.

Scotland, with an even more impenetrable dialect and uglier legs, may also be similarly accommodating next weekend.

Ireland’s challenge is to bring this type of game towards the killing fields of South Africa this summer, as well as engaging at such a high tempo.

The absolute need to risk more than perhaps instinctively they think they should is also paramount when they play New Zealand (twice) and Australia next autumn.

Ireland's flanker CJ Stander (C) scores their third try
Ireland's flanker CJ Stander (C) scores their third try

Otherwise, the lessons learned here today will dissipate as quickly as day turns into night; we must hope Ireland have seen the light.

This spring will not reveal anything about Ireland’s future health and well-being unless the thread remains intact beyond into summer; if this is the template the squad have been at pains to demonstrate to an impatient public, then they must keep faith with it.

Even at the cost of stumbling, as one must, because that is what happens when one attempts to scale new heights.

Tempo is key and the first time Ireland applied it, Conor Murray tapping a quick penalty, they went beyond five phases and forced the first of a series of egregious mistake from the hapless Italians.

Leonardo Sarto slapped back Jonathan Sexton’s attempted dink over the top on the blindside but his full-back had vacated the house; he turned around to see it ablaze as Andrew Trimble stormed in moments later to score the opening try.

Of those Italians not playing for the bottom-feeders of European club rugby, Treviso and Zebre, some were representing a level beneath even that exalted tier and it showed as even the simplest of tasks seemed beyond their wit.

Ireland were trying to do what most international sides have been doing to them for the last year and a bit, ie targeting the wide five-metre channels.

Leaving a gap as large as Lansdowne’s back pitch was also a less than subtle ploy on behalf of the Italians; when Murray attempted to locate a colleague there, a late tackle forced a penalty from which Jack McGrath added a second try.

Within 14 minutes, Ireland had matched their try total for the entire championship; in 14 minutes, Ireland had produced more clinical precision than demonstrated in their last 240 minutes.

Truly, the Azzurri are travelling salesmen offering relief for those in troubled times.

They still thrive upon the inspiration of Sergio Parisse but their captain was reduced to hitting Jonathan Sexton late; another familiar theme of this championship.

The 31-year-old referee - who had stood with his back to the big screen when McGrath’s try was unnecessarily referred to the TMO - adjudged the hit late but not malicious; nevertheless, Ireland got the penalty and the out-half, as is the parlance of all ball games, dusted himself down and slotted the kick.

His bravery remains unquestionable; Ireland’s third try was created by his selflessness, getting smashed by Michele Campagnaro as he switched a delicious ball inside to Keith Earls as ireland cut loose once more.

CJ Stander would score his maiden try for Ireland but Sexton deserved the bouquet.

Simon Zebo was the player who really raised the temperature still further as Ireland belatedly bloomed with the gorgeous Spring afternoon; it was hardly unsurprising that his marvellous off-load set the scene for arguably the try of the championship before half-time.

His exuberance seemed to set the tone for his team-mates to indulge themselves, as the shackles they had been tentatively threatening to toss away for so long, were finally tossed away with abandoned glee.

Even Jared Payne, ostensible selected for his defensive prowess - a bit like Barcelona selecting a holding midfielder to face Accrington Stanley - joined the party, running a brilliant line for Ireland’s second try as well as throwing a loopy - and possibly forward - pass in the build-up to Ireland’s Barbarians-like try before the break.

Beyond that, it was a time to take out the abacus as records threatened to tumble; Connacht represented a third of the Ireland team as the match concluded.

As the team showing the way to how to play expansive rugby this season, the side coached by Pat Lam - perhaps Schmidt’s successor - deserved that recognition.

Online Editors

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