Monday 19 March 2018

Numbers adding up to improvement of sorts

Squad gelling more cohesively as each game passes, says, John O'Brien

John O'Brien

HOW do you measure progress? Maybe Ireland's immense blindside flanker Stephen Ferris caught it just about spot on when he faced the camera moments after the game had ended and suggested, among other things, that it was better than the 36-6 victory against the same opponents in New Zealand last October.

"When we played them in the World Cup," Ferris said, "it took 45 to 50 minutes to break them down."

This line of reasoning had something to offer. In Dunedin Ireland had been slow out of the blocks and led 9-6 at half-time. Yesterday, a shade fortuitously perhaps, the interval gap was seven. Keith Earls had breached Italy's line by the 16th minute, but it didn't seem quite right to suggest Italy had been broken down by that point. Their spirit only sagged much later and, in truth, it was as much their own doing as Ireland's.

The turning point, such as there was one, came not long after the restart when the unfortunate Tobias Botes -- a scrumhalf playing five yards behind his comfort zone -- blazed a kickable penalty hopelessly wide and, pointedly, Italy barely threatened again. Until then they had matched Ireland for possession, spent as much of the game inside Ireland's half as their own, but the burden of carrying an outhalf was palpably too much to bear.

So Ferris' logic withstands some scrutiny. A 30-point margin of victory four months ago. A 32-point margin yesterday. And that probably sums up this squad's current status with neat precision. Marginally gelling more cohesively as a unit with each game that passes. Marginally getting better without offering much compelling evidence that they are likely to evolve into anything special in the near future.

Not that there wasn't a rich enough seam of positives to be harvested. Jonathan Sexton's kicking for one. The outhalf probably cursed Andrew Trimble for skating down the wing and touching down in the corner at the death, thus helping to spoil a perfect kicking record. There was a noteworthy Ireland debut for Peter O'Mahony, eye-catching cameos from Eoin Reddan and Tom Court and a performance from Rob Kearney that reminded us of the world-class player he was before injury interrupted his gallop two years ago.

And still it felt just a little bit flat. The shenanigans in Paris two weeks ago meant they had faced an awkward three-week interlude, but at this level that shouldn't have been a telling factor. Their performance wasn't riddled with errors or devoid of pattern or effort. They just chipped away at Italy and, gradually, pushed themselves out of view. Nothing flash, just solid and workmanlike, more Formula Ford than Forumla One.

Afterwards, you left wondering what right we have to expect more than that. After all, Ireland had lost their last three games at Lansdowne Road, six of their last nine, statistics to scatter the hardest of nerves no matter how modest the opposition. And so it seemed risky when Sexton opted to kick a penalty to the corner on the stroke of half-time when even a three-point lead would have looked generous on the balance of their first-half efforts.

They were rewarded for their bravery with a Tommy Bowe try and the decision to resist the easy temptation to take the three-points, as much as the try itself, ignited the crowd in a way they struggled to manage all afternoon. It stood alongside Botes' miserable attempt at goal not long afterwards as the game's defining moment. The spirit of enterprise it suggested, players hungrily seizing the initiative, is exactly what mobilises a crowd behind you and helps lay the foundation of the fortress you are seeking to build.

It has been a recurring theme of Declan Kidney's stewardship that his conservative style of management has held the team's development in check. Yesterday, at least, there was a glimpse or two of a future that might not be as gloomy as some would have you believe. O'Mahony, Sean Cronin and Donnacha Ryan all came on in the second-half and made useful contributions.

One snapshot in the final 10 minutes was particularly illuminating: Cronin, Ryan, O'Mahony and Paul O'Connell all forming a perfect maul, driving the Italian pack back towards its own '22', the crowd roaring them on with every yard of ground they devoured. That relentless Munster forward power was once considered indispensable to the national side and yesterday, perhaps, offered a sign that it might be on its way back.

Sunday Indo Sport

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