Wednesday 17 July 2019

Neil Francis: Ireland showing a champions sense of survival

Leadership of Sexton and Heaslip will be needed against France

Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Drama seconds before the kick-off and a labyrinth of uncertainty to negotiate. Seán O'Brien's hamstring twinge on the last play of the warm-up and the question: what are Leinster doing in the weights room?

But Ireland have a champion's sense of survival and they navigated any potential problems with a dispassionate and clinical performance. They negotiated the Italian challenge, which lacked ambition or any form of structured order.

Long before the final whistle Ireland managed to turn the Stadio Olimpico into a cemetery with stands. The aroma of failure once again permeated the Italian camp as belatedly, when the match was done, they engaged in an act of feckless defiance when looking for a consolation try. Surely Italy at this stage must be better than that.

Joe Schmidt must be happy to have this uncomfortable engagement out of the way and he can now concentrate on the championship proper and a real match next weekend. He must have been nervous, particularly when he realised that his main ball-carrier would not be participating.

The nonchalance when Schmidt communicated to his medical team that O'Brien was out didn't betray any anxieties. Ireland would play in their first match with a very undersized and underpowered back-row.

While the back-row did not play in concert for large portions of the game, all acquitted themselves efficiently. The individual performances all counted. Italy's back-row was spearheaded by the inestimable Sergio Parisse, and ably augmented by his adjutants Francesco Minto and Alessandro Zanni. The Italian trio mopped up a huge amount of pressure and were in the vanguard of anything positive produced by the home side in the game.

Even when the situation was unrecoverable, the Italian pack was still going and they stayed longer than the mother-in-law. Back in the real world, England won't take 60 minutes to break that Italian pack down in Twickenham.

The key to this game would be Ireland's newly-installed general for a day Ian Keatley. He justified his selection on this occasion over Ian Madigan. He is a cerebral player and thinks problems through ahead of time, and his game management is superior to that of Madigan.

Madigan plays with gut and instinct and quite often, when he should be controlling the game and showing direction, his confidence and exuberance tells him to try something, maybe at the inappropriate time. Quite often this works out but you want your general doing the right thing at the right time for the team and that is why Keatley got the nod.

Keatley gave a 'Ronseal' performance: doing exactly what it said on the tin. He got all his kicks at goal. He was lucky that none of them could be classed as difficult, but he stroked the ball nicely and with confidence and they all went over. As the game wore on and as he assessed what was required, he pinned the Italians back and he had five or six excellent cross-field balls in behind which put the Italians under pressure. His kicking from penalties to touch was equally long and accurate and he played with confidence after a pretty loose first quarter. This was when he had three mistakes in the space of about seven minutes where an attempted cross-kick was hit too flat and he had a kick blocked down minutes later and his attempt at getting runners off him showed signs of nervousness as his pass inside to O'Donnell was forward and should never really have been set in motion as O'Donnell did not come from enough depth.

This is where we observe the value of Johnny Sexton. Keatley's passing and his distribution just wasn't good enough. He possibly could improve as his career progresses but we have to acknowledge at this stage that Ireland will only cause trouble out wide because of Sexton's immaculate passing, more especially the quality of his passing under pressure.

The Italians have a term for it, Sprezzatura, coined by Baldassane Castiglione in The Courtier. The essential renaissance guide to being a gentleman, it expresses the necessary qualities of such a man - the unfaltering ability to make even the most difficult things appear effortless - everything from horseback riding to love-making.

Sexton's serenity of demeanour, speed of thought and ability to observe what is going on around him while time stands still is the reason why Ireland will contend in this championship. Keatley did his job yesterday but Ireland never looked consistently dangerous at any stage of the game and it came down to how the backline was marshalled.

Ireland, too, never used their wingers to full advantage even though both of them looked dangerous whenever they got close to the ball. No offloads, no trailing runners and Ireland took the safe option nearly all of the time. I'm still unsure about Jared Payne - Henshaw has made the leap but the Kiwi is still not in Luke Fitzgerald's class.

Ireland were reassuringly proficient at tight and nicked four or five Italian throw-ins and once again the call made on the tighthead position was correct as they gave the Italians no hope in an area where they needed ascendancy. Once they didn't get it that was it.

Ireland played with sang-froid in the contact zone and only conceded seven penalties which was an exercise in cold-blooded discipline. Italy had to make 205 tackles throughout the game yet none of those tackles really caused them anxiety as the visitors played some pretty orthodox phase play with one off-runners and it was meat and drink to an eager Italian fringe.

Ireland also butchered a couple of decent opportunities. Henshaw got down the left early in the second half but Ross and O'Connell knocked on. Payne also got down the left after a good pass by Zebo and then Henshaw knocked on. Normally Schmidt's sides are cool enough not to be afflicted by white-line fever.

The mounting pressure told and the Italians inevitably tired and conceded penalties. Yet with all this pressure there was no synchronicity, fluency or ease of movement and Ireland missed their generals. Jamie Heaslip's absence was sorely felt. For all the people who criticise him, the value of his presence was never more keenly missed in a match, particularly in the second half where his intelligence and nose for an opportunity are unrivalled.

When Ireland are on their game, particularly against a team like Italy, they can see the Italian try-line from their own dead-ball line. Yesterday the way they played they did not have the capacity to see further than the next ruck. When the team's experienced campaigners come back into the side that will change.

Conor Murray yet again had a big game and Ireland's two outhalves played their part well in the circumstances but we need Sexton controlling and orchestrating and running around like an untipped waiter - bossing his pack and giving unfailing instruction.

Back in tandem with Murray, they will be a fibrous and lethal combination - a difference-maker.

Schmidt now has to make a serious decision on his back row and decide who his ball carriers are. There is no way that O'Brien should be fit for next week's game against France.

This was no more than a professional and clinical dispatch of limited opposition with the recognition that Ireland's feelgood factor has the shelf life of a litre of milk.

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