Thursday 23 November 2017

Eamonn Sweeney: Gladiators in green get thumbs up

Entertainment yes, from the CJ, Garry and Craig Show, but this was not a contest

Craig Gilroy races away to score one of his three tries against Italy at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome yesterday. Photo: Stephen McCarthy
Craig Gilroy races away to score one of his three tries against Italy at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome yesterday. Photo: Stephen McCarthy

Eamonn Sweeney

It was a match befitting the historic home of the unequal sporting contest.

Though, to be honest, even the most fervent Lions v Christians fan might have found this one a bit lacking in competitive edge by comparison. After a few minutes it was clear that Ireland were in for the kind of runaway victory from which it's very difficult to draw any significant conclusions. You can't really claim this game 'answered the critics' or represented a 'return to form'. When Italy play like this, any of the Irish provinces would be disappointed not to beat them well. Nero did a better job as a fireman.

This was a day for the deployment of that old cliché about 'only being able to beat what's in front of you'. But the truth is that Italy often weren't in front of Ireland, they were behind us or clutching the air to either side of us. To call it a turkey shoot would be unfair to the turkey, which can be a reasonably elusive and difficult opponent compared to Conor O'Shea's Italy. Their goose was cooked from the get-go.

Yet, despite the caveats, only the grumpiest curmudgeon could come away from this match without a spring in their step. There have been times in the past when incompetent Italian sides have dragged Ireland down to their level and the result has been a fitful and disjointed match which seemed three hours long. On this occasion Ireland maintained their focus throughout, a brief lull in the third quarter excepted. In the first half they were efficient and ruthless and in the final 20 minutes they were exhilarating.

You can call this one the CJ, Garry and Craig Show. It sounds a bit like an American kids' TV show about a boy band, one where they travel to some exotic city and enjoy adventures which put a smile on the audience's face before rounding it all off with a big musical number. Which is perhaps appropriate because Messrs Stander, Ringrose and Gilroy provided entertainment for all the family in Rome, adding spark and style to the solidity and steel which underpinned the overall performance.

As you watched Ringrose ghost past tacklers as though he'd suddenly been gifted with a cloak of invisibility, it was hard not to think that in a decade or so this try, and the one he poached against Australia late last year, will mark the beginning of a very lengthy and distinguished highlights reel.

The context may have been different but it is hard to shake off memories of a similar try from the Paris hat-trick which announced Brian O'Driscoll's arrival on the international stage. Joe Schmidt has cautioned against making the Drico comparison. But why not make it? It's unavoidable, it's fun and in any case young Ringrose hardly seems like the type of lad to have his head turned by such speculation.

If Ringrose's was the outstanding individual moment of the game, Stander's was the outstanding individual performance.

The regularity with which he's been racking up man-of-the-match awards with Munster has almost become monotonous. A similar process may be occurring with Ireland. Not so long ago Stander wasn't guaranteed his place in the back-row, now he's become probably our most important player. Three big Six Nations Tests await him. If he comes through them as form suggests he will, three more big ones will await him in New Zealand. Where in the northern hemisphere is there a better ball-carrier? I don't care where he comes from, I'm just glad he's not playing against us.

Not long ago Gilroy seemed the epitome of a player with a great future behind him. So much so that his selection on the bench yesterday prompted some head-scratching. There were people who thought he'd retired and others who confused him with Luke Marshall. Yet to a certain extent his was the most intriguing cameo of all.

Two of the tries may have been of the 'run that in there in your own time like a good lad' variety but the other featured a sidestep and a burst of acceleration that would have troubled any defence. With Rob Kearney once more quotidian on a day when so many of his team-mates reached the heights, could there be a case for moving Simon Zebo to full-back and taking a chance on Gilroy? He is certainly an unexpected additional weapon in the armoury, however the manager chooses to deploy him.

If the questions posed by the Scottish defeat will have to wait for another day before they are answered, the one thing we can say is that Ireland seem confident that they can answer them. We didn't have a big musical number at the end but we did have one remorseless final attack which displayed a determination to continue doing the right and ruthless thing to the end. It might not have been the most serious match this team will ever play but the way they set about their business provided 80 minutes of damn good entertainment. That's nothing to be sneezed at on a dank day in February.

But what did it all mean? As is the case with a lot of life's puzzling philosophical questions, we'll need some Frenchmen to explain that to us.

For the moment, like a peculiarly benign emperor, we'll give this one the thumbs up.

Sunday Indo Sport

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