Monday 22 January 2018

Neil Francis: Back-row tour de force banishes all traces of Murrayfield stage fright

Sean O'Brien enjoyed a highly encouraging return and was part of Ireland's back row tour de force. Photo: Sportsfile
Sean O'Brien enjoyed a highly encouraging return and was part of Ireland's back row tour de force. Photo: Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

The only time you realise that you have a reputation is when you are told that you are not living up to it. Big wins against big names last year but a narcoleptic performance against Scotland and everything is thrown out of kilter. Sleepy last Saturday, grumpy during the week and happy yesterday - are we talking about Ireland's state of mind or the seven dwarfs?

You can discount the Italian effort if you want, they were overwhelmed yesterday, but Ireland were very good. If Ireland had played the way they had at Murrayfield, yesterday's result would have been an awful lot closer. The Italians were searching for an extension to the promising 50 minutes of outlay against the Welsh last weekend. Compete with the Irish pack, stop them on the gain-line, hit them hard and hope mistakes come and if you can keep them scoreless watch as their impatience and frustration mounts into negativity all along the line.

It begs the question: why were Ireland so good this week? The power of intelligent effort and creative expression was just too much for Italy. Throughout the game Ireland gave a performance of unflagging effort and concentration and managed to kick on from a stale third quarter to pick up nine crucial tries in total.

It is easy to wallow in regret, it's a complete waste of time and Ireland put their Murrayfield disappointment behind them, got to the stadium on time and started well. They are back in to the competition now and I fancy them to beat France well in two weeks' time - this observation based not on their performance against an obdurate but hopelessly outclassed Italian side but more on the fact that they have recovered themselves, kick-started a little bit of momentum and, as ever with Joe Schmidt's sides at international level, they get better as the tournament moves on and the New Zealander's influence is brought to bear.

The new leader of the western world said recently that "sometimes by losing a battle you find a new way to win the war". If Ireland retain this level of enthusiasm and have the same structured approach in all of their other matches, they will be very difficult to beat. Sometimes the battle is not against their opponents but against their own mediocrity. Ireland may just recover from their opening-day stage fright and go on to win the Championship. There is no one outstanding side in the competition and I include England in that statement.

When your opponent is sitting there holding all the aces, sometimes there is only one thing to do - kick over the table. The fact that Italy couldn't turn this in to a dogfight said much for Ireland's brio and their skill levels. Wales were unable to avoid the fight for 50-odd minutes last week and that is what is encouraging about Ireland's 80 minutes yesterday.

As for the Italians, there are no short-cuts in evolution and they will have to take an awful lot more pain before they become consistent and competitive. They are still chasing the pack - next day delivery in a nano-second world. There were flashes yesterday but Ireland's defensive effort was reassuringly good.

In that barren period during the second half Italy did manage to take control of the ball for periods and in all of their salvos in Ireland's 22 the line speed which took Ireland's defence up very deep was refreshing and Italy got caught every time as the receiver gained possession.

France will play this deep as well in two weeks' time and they will probably get caught deep too. It is amazing to think of the result of those tackles when formerly Ireland were quite happy to drift. Once the ball carrier is put down behind the line that's it - the move practically stops. It will be interesting to see whether they continue to use this tactic in a fortnight's time.

Ireland used their back-row as a springboard to win this game. You can never have enough power runners in this area. Italy's back-row just didn't have the wherewithal to contain Ireland and the fabulous Sergio Parisse resembles the Titanic with not enough lifeboats to go round and eventually he sank in to the mire along with the rest of the Italian pack.

Hard to say who was most influential? CJ Stander was just a handful and managed to get his customary three or four metres past the initial tackle. Jamie Heaslip ran with real intelligence and seemed to break the line at the most crucial moment in phase play. Seán O'Brien, after practically no real match experience, is just about match-fit and some of the things he did yesterday, all too numerous to mention here, were highly encouraging. He is a small bit off being at his very best at the tackle zone; a lot of the time he is there and he is competing and he picked off one or two, but against France he could be the difference.

Paddy Jackson was unflappable, almost casual in his performance. Every game he plays shows improvement and he is now a mature international and Schmidt won't have sleepless nights naming his out-half for the French game but that day is not too far away.

Discipline is the bridge to where you want to go at Test level. It is not a coincidence that Ireland conceded so few penalties in all of their recent Test matches. Six penalties conceded yesterday told you about Ireland's calm under pressure. There will be greater pressure in the weeks ahead.

They were perfect at set-piece and they got their kicking game back into sync. A performance infused with the frustrations of the previous week allied with impeccable execution. Who is certain of beating them?

Sunday Indo Sport

Promoted Links

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Promoted Links

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport