Thursday 22 March 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: No point beating about the bruschetta - Ireland-Italy was boring

This was the spinach to be eaten before the ice cream comes out

Eamonn Sweeney

The great American poet John Berryman once wrote that, "Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so." And so it goes with sport sometimes.

I could employ the usual phrases utilised to camouflage the sheer dreadfulness of a disappointing game, "grimly compelling", "oddly intriguing", "physically intense", and the like. But why beat about the bruschetta? This match was boring. In fact, the first half stunk worse than a gang of skunks eating camembert beside a silage pit. Perhaps jealous that England and Scotland get to compete for the Calcutta Cup, Ireland and Italy decided to make the Stadio Olimpico the site of the inaugural Valium Vase.

The Wales-England clash on Friday night had showcased the Six Nations at its best. It was a Hollywood blockbuster of a match. This was more like one of those Ken Loach movies where it rains all the time and the most exciting incident is a 10-minute discussion of the merits of Marxism vis a vis anarcho-syndicalism. It was grimmer than a Joy Division box set.

But none of this matters very much. Because the match in Cardiff suggested we may be in for the most exciting Six Nations championship in years. There is lots of excitement in the pipeline for Ireland fans as the team go head to head against France and English and Welsh teams who both look to have come on a bit from last year. We can expect Joe Schmidt's team to rise to those occasions. We'll have had our fair share and more of thrills by the time the campaign comes to a close.

This, however, was the spinach which has to be polished off before the ice cream is brought out. And while we may feel tempted to act like one of those modern art critics who finds himself confronted by a pile of cushions in a gallery corner and goes on about them, "raising issues of transcendence and metamorphosis in the post-colonial context", it's as well to be honest. Sometimes a pile of cushions are just a pile of cushions and sometimes a boring game is just a boring game.

There's not even much point saying that Ireland will have to raise their game before they play France. They'd have had to do that anyway, no matter how they performed yesterday because nobody brings their A game when they play Italy. The poor old Italians are the most depressing team in world rugby, full of honest endeavour in the pack and utter incompetence behind the scrum. It was easy to see why they managed to go through all the autumn internationals without scoring a try. And hard to see how they'll avoid a repeat of last year's whitewash.

The home team have gone backwards considerably in the last couple of years and there are few signs of heirs to the likes of Parisse and Castrogiovanni. The simplest box-kick caused consternation in their ranks, handling errors were rife and even their scrum came off second best as Mike Ross gave Matias Aguero a torrid time. Scrum-half Gori was so unsure, you wondered why they hadn't picked Bunclodi or Enniscorti instead.

In the circumstances, Ireland were efficient if not quite clinical. Conor Murray showed a sense of urgency and sharpness which wasn't always present elsewhere in the team and deserved to be the first try-scorer, while Tommy O'Donnell's fine individual try crowned a performance which suggested the Munster man was determined to make the most of Seán O'Brien's pre-match misfortune. To a certain extent, O'Brien's withdrawal through injury may have been the most significant thing that happened. He must surely run through his quota of bad luck soon.

Ian Keatley as out-half at the start of the Six Nations has enough of a Jim Braddock winning the heavyweight title flavour about it to make you pleased that he landed his penalties, even if he didn't do anything that made you think, "Johnny Sexton, who needs him?" The most disappointing facet of the game was the failure of the backs to produce a single penetrating move, even when Italy seemed to be running on empty during the final quarter. Seeing Ireland without O'Driscoll was a bit like seeing your old house after a divorce. You'll get used to it in time, but you can't pretend it doesn't feel odd for the moment.

The scrum was the big bonus on the day. Cian Healy will come back into the starting line-up, but Jack McGrath does his reputation new good with every outing. Ross remains the side's unsung hero. The line-out was flakier than it has been of late, but that probably doesn't give cause for too much concern. The ramshackle nature of Italian performances tends to affect opponents at some stage.

In the end, it meant nothing at all. Trying to divine lessons for the season from this one is a bit like trying to tell fortunes by reading tea leaves. It might provide a small bit of diversion, but there really isn't anything significant to be garnered from the exercise.

We stand on the verge of potentially the most exciting season in Irish rugby history and it's certain that, whether or not those wild and wonderful hopes are realised, very few people will remember anything about this pipe opener. And that's just as well because few games so richly deserve to be forgotten.

Now, if you're sitting comfortably, we may begin.

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