Monday 22 January 2018

Ireland return to the hard road

Kidney's preparations for France encounter require some serious repair work, writes Brendan Fanning

Brian O'Driscoll scores a try against Italy. Photo: Sportsfile
Brian O'Driscoll scores a try against Italy. Photo: Sportsfile

The lines that kept cropping up yesterday as things in Rome looked increasingly dodgy were the ones last week from the coach and captain of Ireland. After 14 straight wins over Italy both Declan Kidney and Brian O'Driscoll conceded that of course there would come a day when Italy would come first in this two-horse race, but they hoped it wouldn't be just yet.

If you didn't entertain the prospect of that day having arrived when Luke McLean crashed over out wide with a few minutes left then truly your faith in the green is unshakeable.

The urgency with which Ireland responded was impressive, from regaining the restart to carving out the position for Ronan O'Gara to nail the winning drop goal. If you combine his endgames yesterday with a fortnight ago in the Heineken Cup against London Irish then you would do well to find him having a put a foot wrong. It is extraordinary that someone can come into a game like that and find total accuracy without any lead in.

O'Gara will give Kidney the look when the review is complete and the focus shifts to France on Sunday. That would be the 'I'd like to be picked' look. Eoin Reddan will be practising the same stare. Tom Court will want to get in ahead of Cian Healy. So too Shane Jennings for David Wallace. And Leo Cullen will have been extremely disappointed that he didn't start ahead of Donncha O'Callaghan, but equally he will acknowledge that Paul O'Connell's regular partner had a good game and worked extremely hard.

Before Kidney decides who should start against France he has to figure out how his players made so many handling errors. Certainly the pressure from the Italians was typical of them first up in the Championship, and it got to Gordon D'Arcy made a neat pile of mistakes that should have had Paddy Wallace on the field earlier. In his review of this you would hope he will take some time over Sean O'Brien. After the Samoa game in the autumn O'Brien got a bad press, which became overwhelmingly positive on the back of his performances for Leinster.

There will be a bit of head-shaking after yesterday but only by those who don't appreciate the jump to Test rugby. And the fact that he was up against one the great No 8s in world rugby, Sergio Parisse, who had Nick Mallett in his ear all week asking him was be going to be upstaged by this greenhorn? Parisse tracked O'Brien like a hit man. The Ireland No 8 did well. Aside from the stunningly efficient jailbreak however, the team did not.

They were lucky not to be penalised for crossing for Brian O'Driscoll's try, when the captain took out two defenders ahead of the ball in the build-up, and they forced passes when it must have been as easy to steady and take a breath. This is fixable. They defended badly for McLean's try as well, and surely Luke Fizgerald would have been better staying wide. Hopefully this is fixable too.

For an accurate read on the set-piece however and where it's at right now unfortunately the presence of Monsieur Poite has clouded the issue. After a long hard day slogging at the scrum, Kidney had every reason to believe that when Ireland survived a series of them close to their own line, starting in the 68th minute, that all would be well. Mike Ross had a look of utter determination on his face as he braced himself for the critical collision. You'd wonder though had Ross suddenly found the answer to the Italian's power or had some other fundamental change taken place.

It might well have been the latter. Consistently in the first half Salvatore Perugini had caused havoc on Ireland's tighthead side by the simple and wholly illegal mechanism of driving up into a standing position. The laws on this are fairly straightforward: when a scrum pops up the referee either has to reset it -- they really don't like doing this given the outcry over the number of them -- or penalise one of the front rows for deliberately popping up.

Romain Poite didn't have much clue what to do. Rather he never considered doing anything other than penalising Ross. So when Perugini went off to be replaced by Andrea Lo Cicero, who wasn't as hell-bent on popping up as his amico, then Ross had a more manageable task on his hands.

You couldn't say the same for Cian Healy on the other side whose suffering at the hands of Martin Castrogiovanni seemed have less to do with the referee and more to do with the Ireland loosehead's ongoing issues at this phase.

For sure it will be a focal point this week after what France did to the Scotland scrum in Paris. We remember the recent testimony of Jamie Cudmore about his Clermont teammate Tomas Domingo, that not only is he small and bloody awkward but that he's a bad man about the field as well. That of course would appeal to Cudmore who knows the inside of rugby disciplinary hearings better than most.

Domingo is one of those old school looseheads -- at least in appearance. And you would imagine that Euan Murray will be glad if he never comes across him again. France's penalty try from the scrum in the first half -- directly attributable to Domingo's power and technique -- was a critical score for France given the way Scotland had kept their heads and done what Munster learned to do in France: not panic.

Indeed you could see clearly marked signposts emerging for Ireland in the way the Scots had overcome that horrible start. There were shades of Ireland in Stade de France in 2006 about the way France were playing. You may remember that 43-31 setback as one of the most bizarre Test matches ever, when Ireland would blink and France would score -- and yet in the final quarter you could see Ireland possibly winning it. Inside two minutes Aurelien Rougerie's kick, which came off possession that could have gone anywhere, sat up perfectly for Maxime Medard. Later in the same quarter, by which stage France were 10 points up, Francois Trinh Duc punted wide for Julien Bonnaire. For a second it looked like the outhalf would be made to pay as Scotland wing Max Evans looked to gather -- and had he managed it he was away down the far end. Of course the ball beat him and sat up for Bonnaire.

In the circumstances the Scots did really well not to buckle in the face of all these bounces and flicks going beautifully for the home team. And they did it by playing direct rugby from depth, and either cutting back or straightening when France's defence went into drift mode.

At times France's defence was lazy. For Ally Kellock's from close-in their dedication to the task was light years removed for example from what we saw in Cardiff on Friday night. Rather they seemed happier hitting and stripping players in midfield to try and dislodge a few scraps to turn into a quick snack.

And they are frighteningly good at making a lot out of very little, even allowing for the lucky bounces which frequently attend their games against Celts in Paris. Then there is the other stuff, the parts the other five nations simply cannot reach. When Trinh Duc fired the ball blind and backwards between his legs to Imanol Harionordoquy, for the match-winning try in the third quarter, you thought it would be a bit rich even in a Barbarians game. Yet not only was it appropriate but it was successful. And it sickened the Scots.

It would have served Ireland's cause so much better on Sunday if France hadn't been given the leg-up of one of those sublime performances when forwards offload like backs, and backs look like Olympic sprinters. A dent to their confidence, given their negative state of mind coming into yesterday, would have suited Kidney perfectly.

Instead he has to do it the hard way. It's not as if he has nothing to work with though -- the Scots did show how a direct approach can work against France -- and Kidney's task would be a whole lot harder if Ireland's record against Italy had been flipped yesterday. Still upright then going to the second fence.

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