Saturday 16 December 2017

Irish brush off the cobwebs

Paris trip takes on fresh complexion as Italyprovide the perfect World Cup hangover cure

Paul O'Connell, supported by Ronan
O'Gara (right), is tackled by Italy duo
Antonio Pavanello
Paul O'Connell, supported by Ronan O'Gara (right), is tackled by Italy duo Antonio Pavanello

THE fog is, finally, starting to lift. Ireland's aspirations since their World Cup quarter-final exit have been dogged by disruption -- injuries, withdrawals, needless citings, cancellations and back-room upheaval -- but this comprehensive victory will serve as an Alka-Seltzer to previous grogginess, Italy are the perfect cure.

Amid all the outrage and frustrations of the Paris debacle two weeks ago, it was clear that the postponement was a gift from the rugby deities to the Irish, who return to the French capital next weekend in far healthier repair than when they staggered into town reeling from the defeat by Wales.

The Italians, God bless them, are desperately trying to improve but they remain an extraordinarily limited international outfit and when their resolve fails them, as it did in the second half on Saturday, it is 'fill your boots' time.

It is hard not to feel deep sympathy for their captain Sergio Parisse, the only Italian player who would get a game on the Ireland side. At one point in the first half, with the Italy scrum providing a perfect platform, up on the tight-head side, Parisse picked and looked for his scrum-half in the hole. Instead, there was only a hole and the No 8 was left flapping his arms in frustration.

In the aviary of Italian rugby, Parisse is an eagle surrounded by lame ducks and you sense it is getting to him -- certainly judging by the despondent figure he cut at the post-match press conference.

"In the second half we missed too many tackles and weakened mentally. In the end... we gave up," said Parisse, with a combined air of resignation and accusation.

Ireland were not complaining and, after a desperately mediocre first half when the flat nature of the contest mirrored the muted lunchtime atmosphere, Declan Kidney's side found their rhythm in the second period, providing genuine optimism for their French assignment.

As the Ireland coach noted afterwards, the team's fate next weekend rests on how they start at the Stade de France. If they can replicate the intensity they showed in the second half on Saturday and stay with the French until half-time, then they are in business. If they start slowly for the third game in a row, it is time to wish Irene all the best for the evening.

For the first 35 minutes, Ireland allowed the Italians to garner confidence and belief that they had a genuine shot at an upset. Tobias Botes may be a square peg in a round hole at out-half, but when the South African showed excellent footballing awareness to send Parisse (who else?) scooting over for a converted try under the posts, the scores were tied at 10-10 and Ireland's World Cup hangover was still raging.

If it had stayed that way until the interval, doubts could have seeped in but a try from the impressive Tommy Bowe settled nerves and the second-half response was compelling.

A five-try return is not to be sniffed at and, even when they were struggling in the first half, it was encouraging to see Ireland have the confidence to eschew kicks at the posts in favour of line-outs, which led to the two scores by Keith Earls and Bowe.

Although Italy's limitations in attack and defensive vulnerability as the game wore on are a significant caveat, there was still evidence of Les Kiss' work starting to pay off. The extra time together has obviously helped and Ireland were far more accomplished on the ball and in the tackle than they had been against Wales.

The impact of the bench dominated post-match discussion and opened the debate on whether there should be changes made for next weekend. It is always harder to alter a winning formula than a losing one but Eoin Reddan and Donnacha Ryan, in particular, were explosive when they joined proceedings and it will be hard to ignore their claims on elevation to the starting XV.

Then there is Peter O'Mahony. History shows that throwing in rookies in Paris can have international career-ending implications, but this is a player who oozes the 'right stuff'. It is still early days for the 22-year-old but he has taken every challenge in his stride so far and has a fearless quality and the bit of dog that you always need in Paris, and he will not be cowed by intimidating surroundings or vaunted opponents.

It would be a massive call by Kidney but the Irish back-row is not reaching the standards they set in the World Cup and O'Mahony's introduction at open-side could be the spark that is needed -- as well as allowing Sean O'Brien to switch to a different, reinvigorating role to bring back the devastating ball-carrying that made his reputation.

Seeing Bowe and Jonathan Sexton in the centre raised intriguing possibilities also. Bowe's size would be very useful against a powerful French midfield, as would Sexton's play-making skills in the role New Zealanders refer to as second five-eighth.

However, while it is good to have those options on hand, Gordon D'Arcy and Earls had good outings in midfield, while Sexton was back to his best at 10. It has been a tough time for the 26-year-old as Ronan O'Gara's superb form, allied to Sexton's mixed outing against Wales, created a degree of insecurity around the position but there all doubts were banished on Saturday.

Sexton looked in control from first to last, his place-kicking (seven from eight) was on the money and his general play was full of assurance -- the stand-out moment being an exquisite cut-out pass for Bowe's second try.


Winning the Man of the Match award will further boost his confidence, as will playing the full 80 minutes and continuing to take the kicks after O'Gara was introduced for the last 10 minutes.

So, there is every chance that Kidney will leave well enough alone and seek the same type of bench impact he got on Saturday. The danger is, in Paris, that it could arrive when the game is already gone.

With four internationals in four weeks you need options and Kidney, as the best coaches do, has created them. As he said afterwards: "If 15 fellahs go down with measles, I am happy to play the other 15."

The challenge of securing only a second win in Paris in 40 years remains an incredibly daunting one but not as daunting as it was a few weeks ago and having a selection debate on the back of a comprehensive victory is always healthy.

Much to ponder then, but not a bad place to be. Ireland are on the move again. Now it is about maintaining velocity from the start in Paris.

IRELAND -- R Kearney; T Bowe, K Earls (F McFadden 68), G D'Arcy (R O'Gara 70), A Trimble; J Sexton, C Murray (E Reddan 54); C Healy (T Court 70), R Best (S Cronin 70), M Ross; D O'Callaghan (D Ryan 59), P O'Connell (capt); S Ferris, S O'Brien (P O'Mahony 59), J Heaslip.

ITALY -- A Masi; G Venditti, T Benvenuti, A Sgarbi (G Canale 64), L McLean; T Botes (K Burton 59), E Gori (F Semenzato 73); M Rizzo, L Ghiraldini (T D'Apice 72), L Cittadini (F Staibano 68); Q Geldenhuys (A Pavanello 59), M Bortolami; A Zanni, R Barbieri (S Favaro 64), S Parisse.

REF -- C Joubert (South Africa).

Irish Independent

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