Friday 19 January 2018

Neil Francis: Composed Ireland a class apart

It's not just what O'Driscoll does, it's the way that he does it

Brian O'Driscoll breaks through the Italian defence as teammates Martin Moore, Devin Toner and Paul O'Connell look on
Brian O'Driscoll breaks through the Italian defence as teammates Martin Moore, Devin Toner and Paul O'Connell look on
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

When I was a kid I dreamed of being a chat show host. My first guest was going to be the astronaut Neil Armstrong. I would interview him for half an hour and never mention the moon once.

If I am to give an accurate account of yesterday's match it would be just impossible to do it without mentioning Brian O'Driscoll. It is rare in a sporting environment that you get to star in your own movie but that is exactly what happened yesterday.

What exalts you into iconic status? What is the difference between O'Driscoll and any other international class player? Maybe Mae West might give us a clue, she said: "It's not what I do but the way that I do it. It's not what I say but the way that I say it and how I look when I do it and say it." The way that he does it I suppose.

Ireland scored seven tries yesterday. It is quite possible, even given their dominance, that they might have only scored three, or four at the max. People, even at this stage of O'Driscoll's career, talk about the amount of pace that he has lost without ever taking into account what a brilliant passer of the ball he is.

A natural conveyor along the line and yesterday, in tight spaces, he got one or two wondrous off-loads away to outside runners, passes that nobody else could visualise or manufacture and that was quite possibly the difference between winning this championship and coming up frustratingly short as they did in 2007.

A 46-7 victory might just be enough. Today's match, I guess, will be a low scoring affair and it will leave England and Wales like two bald men fighting over a comb. I do take England to win today though.

A 46-7 scoreline doesn't tell you much about our Italian visitors. They are a pretty good side and I suspect that if their two outstanding back-row players, Sergio Parisse and Alessandro Zanni, had been on the park, the scoreline would not have been as big as it was. The other thing that should be noted in the battle of the back row was that Ireland were very much under-powered in this department and Iain Henderson, although a very talented player, was somewhere off where he needed to be.

Chris Henry, too, had an industrious afternoon but was guilty of a number of errors of judgment and Ireland badly missed the unstemmable aggression of Peter O'Mahony. Oh for Stephen Ferris or Sean O'Brien to be fit again. If O'Mahony is fit he will certainly play in Paris on Saturday.

Another thing the scoreline tells you is that Ireland were excellent. Italy gave a very good account of themselves, their tackling was lustrous and certain and there were periods in the game when Ireland engaged in 20-phase play and got nowhere because Italy were good in the scramble and their first up tackling was excellent.

Realistically, Ireland won out in the last quarter because they are a much fitter side, more composed when the game became fractious and just a little sharper when an opportunity came their way.

Encouragingly, Ireland's setpiece was pristine in terms of winning ball and they gave a very strong Italian scrum a serious examination following on from their impressive showing against an English scrum at Twickenham. If their setpiece holds up in Paris, which I expect it will, Ireland will win the championship.

Ireland were by no means perfect but Johnny Sexton showed great generalship and led the line really, really well. That was Ireland's starting point and his two tries were things of beauty straight out of the Leinster play-book.

Would this ploy work against the suffocating French defence? From a good scrum Sexton fed O'Driscoll, who had manoeuvred himself to an inside position coming from the point of an outside-centre. Gordon D'Arcy drifted further wide and Sexton not so much looped but cut short around O'Driscoll. There is nobody in world rugby who does the 'no look' pass better than O'Driscoll and he popped it up deliciously for Sexton to run on to without having to check. He has great pace and he scored behind the posts.

Ireland went at Italy but the tenor of their attack wasn't really compelling and you got a sense that they were shadow boxing and looking for a weakness. Italy could have scored before they actually did as Angelo Esposito cut inside with Michele Campagnaro free outside him. When Italy levelled through Leonardo Sarto, a really excellent try, you sensed that this game might turn into an arm wrestle. The fact that Ireland held their nerve and showed composure bodes well for Paris.

Conor Murray has played well for Ireland this season and it is hard to know whether he will be available next Saturday but Eoin Reddan came on and did a great job in the circumstances and his busy bee personality and ability to dictate the game when it broke up later on told for Ireland.

It is noteworthy that when Murray went off, Racing Metro had the same number of representatives on the pitch for Ireland as Munster. It is also significant that five members of the Irish pack that finished the game: Jack McGrath, Sean Cronin, Martin Moore, Rhys Ruddock and Jordi Murphy are all Leinster second-string players. At one stage there were a dozen Leinster players on the field. You can't give out because they all performed with real conviction.

There was still looseness in Ireland's game as they went looking for more points. In the 62nd minute Cronin threw one of those horrible wobbly overthrows to the back – you can't make those sort of mistakes that close to the line. Ireland managed to retrieve the ball cheaply but the attack went west as the ball got to Henry. The Ulster flanker saw the line instead of a two man overlap outside him and he charged sideways into contact and got turned over. The video session tomorrow morning won't be all sweetness and light.

Once again, Italy lost the ball, this time through Ruddock who did good work on the ground, and Cronin made up for his initial sloppiness. Are we quibbling? Probably. Ireland's possession and territory figures were phenomenal, at nearly 80 per cent. I don't think you can take issue with the scoreline either, the Italians were a decent proposition. Ireland only conceded two penalties all afternoon, which was scarcely believable.

O'Driscoll was given Man of the Match, which was thoroughly justified, and he signs off his international career on home soil on a high note. It is probably appropriate that his footnote will come from Cicero, who said "the life given us by nature is short but the memory of a well-spent life is eternal."

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