Friday 24 November 2017

Poor display puts shortcomings into sharp focus


IN the end, Ireland made it over the line. Just. It finished with the familiar sight of Ronan O'Gara sitting in the pocket, an acre of space to compose himself and coolly slot the winning points.

Ah yes, where had we seen this before? Except there was no Grand Slam on the line in Rome yesterday.

O'Gara's intervention did nothing more than spare his team the ritual humiliation of losing to a side that had never unduly troubled them in the history of the Six Nations.

It was a touch embarrassing, nonetheless. The sheer power Italy would bring to the game was what Donald Rumsfeld would have referred to as a "known known", yet Ireland seemed helpless at times to counter it. It made for a close-fought and entertaining game and yet, in the wider context, Italy's shortcomings were still patently evident and Ireland's problems sharply magnified. In terms of the championship and the World Cup to follow, it was hardly a stretch to imagine the teams as bald men tussling over a comb.

One of the odd criticisms sometimes levelled at Declan Kidney is that his obvious Munster attachment undermines him when he is cast in another role.

Of course, the clinching of a Grand Slam in his first season makes that an automatically suspect judgment, yet the loyalty he continues to show to former Munster charges, evinced by yesterday's selection, is a topic for sustained discussion. Two years ago, Munster and Ireland were thriving. Now, they both struggle for form and consistency. Mere co-incidence or evidence of a deeper malaise?

Yet if Ireland were disfunctional yesterday, the truth was there was no single element primarily at fault for it. It was a collective failure. The fault lines ran throughout the team. Midway through the first-half Jonathan Sexton tried to off-load quickly to Brian O'Driscoll, meat and drink to two in-form Leinster players, but the execution went horribly wrong. A total systems' failure and not a Munster player in sight.

It wasn't just Italy's power, but the intensity with which they maintained it that caught Ireland on the hop. Their first score was emblematic of how they played. Tomas O'Leary plucked the ball from the base of a ruck inside his own half. The scrum-half delayed his pass only by the merest fraction, but enough for Sergio Parisse to pounce and force O'Leary into conceding a penalty on the ground. Mirco Bergamasco kicked the points and Italy led.

O'Leary had been selected on the assumption that his superior strength to his rivals for the No 9 jersey would stand Ireland in better stead, but it turned out to be wishful thinking.

Parisse targeted O'Leary throughout the game and gave the scrum-half a torrid time. In hindsight, Kidney will surely reflect that there were better, more proactive options open to him.

It was easy to see what Ireland wanted to do: create space for Keith Earls and Luke Fitzgerald to exploit from deep, but it never really happened. There was no cohesion about them, no pattern to what they did. Fergus McFadden had a solid debut, but won't thank O'Driscoll for two passes that sailed straight over his head into touch. The second, midway through the second-half, came at a time Ireland were dominating and with the line gaping.

To make matters worse, Gordon D'Arcy spilled the ball forward a couple of minutes later when an equally inviting opportunity had presented itself. Italy were just four points behind at that stage, still sparkling with self-belief, still enough of a threat that Ireland simply could not afford to squander such opportunities. Not when they were living on scraps, having travelled for their regular Roman banquet.

For sure it was legitimate to speculate how much Ireland were undermined by an extensive injury list. Jamie Heaslip and Stephen Ferris would have added immeasurably to a back-row that failed to spark into life, even if Sean O'Brien was deemed the man of the match.

Paul O'Connell didn't look sharp and, given how little rugby he has played this season, that was understandable. Tommy Bowe's pace and proven finishing was probably the biggest loss of all. Yet if Ireland could ever cope with a long injury list, yesterday was the day. It was far too close for comfort.

For Kidney, there will be questions to answer. He has always been deemed conservative in terms of selection, but yesterday proved how conservative he can be during games. It wasn't until an hour had been played, when Parisse had tortured O'Leary for the umpteenth time, that the scrumhalf was finally replaced by Eoin Reddan. It was surprising, too, that Cian Healy lasted the full game, given his problems in the scrum. Leo Cullen, Sean Cronin and Paddy Wallace were introduced late on, but at a time when their influence on the game could hardly be profound.

For 20 minutes of the half it had looked good for Ireland. The old pattern of early Italian muscle beginning to fade as the game wore on looked to be repeating itself.

O'Driscoll didn't have one of his best games, but he was at hand two minutes after the restart to finish a move started by an incisive dash from O'Leary off a rare vibrant Irish scrum. They led for the first time and looked like they might start to punch home their advantage. But they failed to do it and nearly paid a horrible price.

Ten minutes from time, Italy started to punch serious holes in the Irish rearguard. Anything seemed possible from that moment onwards. They mauled Ireland 20 metres into their 22 and pushed hard for the line, spurning the chance to kick three points when the inevitable penalty came. A fine tackle from Earls probably saved a try and when Andrea Lo Cicero couldn't hold a pass from Parisse, Ireland were able to hold them out by the skin of their teeth.

They could never have imagined such a grim battle for survival. When Denis Leamy drew a yellow card with seven minutes remaining, Italy's confidence surged. Finally they breached the Irish line with a sweeping move across their backs, Luke McLean diving over in the corner. Ireland's players huddled in a circle behind their line, shellshocked and fearing the worst.

But they got lucky. Bergamasco narrowly missed with his conversion attempt and, had he been successful, victory would have been, to all intents and purposes, beyond Ireland. Finally, O'Gara rescued them and they trooped off with a sense of relief but little joy. O'Driscoll's strange prophecy on Friday that Italy would one day beat Ireland in the Six Nations was within five minutes of becoming a self-fulfilling one.

Now Italy will be thinking of New Zealand and October and the chance, even with Ireland's star men back, of going that one step further. And the rest of the rugby world? Well, they can't be thinking too much really.

Sunday Indo Sport

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