Sunday 19 November 2017

Scannell revels in a Roman Holiday

Munster hooker sets the tone as Ireland make amends for Murrayfield mishap

Niall Scannell throws into the line-out during an impressive display Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Niall Scannell throws into the line-out during an impressive display Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

Rome, if you allow it, has a multitude of ways to simply soak you with inadequacies, some of which you may not even have contemplated before.

Every cobblestone upon which you walk is steeped in a weight of history so suffocating it can make you gasp.

Craig Gilroy acrobatically attempts to keep the ball in play Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Craig Gilroy acrobatically attempts to keep the ball in play Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Around every claustrophobic corner another ancient, architectural wonder; to age gracefully here, whether one is a majestic monument or an impossibly slim signora, is an art form in itself.

We take a trip to the Santa Maria basilica where lies the skull of St Valentine; a reminder of this city's violent past and, too, that love may not necessarily conquer all.

Amidst so much splendour, it is difficult to stand apart from the crowd although, it must be noted, those visiting thousands of swelling bellies donned in copious green can be an aid to some sense of distinction.

So too was it hard to elevate the endeavour within the Stadio Olimpico; after all, they have been staging such hopelessly imbalanced contests in arenas like this for centuries.

Stolen

At least we knew, on this gloriously sunny afternoon, stolen from the set of 'Roman Holiday', that nobody would have their heads removed. Or be allowed to lose them.

Craig Gilroy was a prime example.

As he resuscitated his love affair with the Irish team, his gleeful 27-minute hat-trick is the first scored by a rugby replacement at this level in this century.

Deep inside the belly of the stadium, where the sun never shines, his head coach is asked to assess the player whose grin remains as wide as the Tiber.

"A mixed bag". Like the fella said when he glanced momentarily upwards while rambling through the Sistine Chapel, "Jaysus, she could so with a lick of paint..."

As we say, it is hard to impress folks here. Paddy Jackson bags his own personal record but his skimming second conversion is parsed at length. "The flight path of a wounded duck," a dead-panning Joe Schmidt adds mirthlessly.

It is warming to see Schmidt cracking jokes with a straight face after a week when his studiously-honed championship plans were, as we were reminded ad nauseam ever since, skewed by a calamitous 10-minute bus ride in Edinburgh.

The players received plenty of reminders from him of their mental frailties then; merely producing what was expected of them now was hardly going to invite showers of garlands from such a demanding leader.

This week, aided by such quiescent opponents, nothing could distract them from their task which was why Niall Scannell was able to explode into his debut by helping to win a first-minute scrum against the head.

The Munster hooker's sustained excellence from the first moment mirrored that of his team-mates and at once made a mockery of all the nonsense we had been fed last week about the squad's fractured build-up.

Scannell's response to his hasty promotion was admirably self-sufficient.

"I only heard late but Rory has been very good to me the last few weeks, building me into the set-up and helping with calls and everything. He's been top notch.

"I was disappointed for him but then quickly had to switch over to making sure I could fill his boots a bit.

"He helped me get prepped to where I needed to be. There wasn't anything special needed today."

He was something special, though.

Normally another area where visitors here were once made to feel inadequate, instead the Italian scrummagers were reduced to Roman ruins.

"We just took a deep breath and went again," says Scannell, whose first experience of Test duty was accomplished, to his credit, with about as much fuss as someone putting out the bins.

"To be honest, the dressing room afterwards stands out. I saw the disappointment last week so it was brilliant to see the lads afterwards enjoying it. That was the best part."

And now he can enjoy the night, unfettered by slavish routine and doctrine.

"I've nothing to worry about, have I?" he asks us, wondering, perhaps, if he may be asked to sing a song, wear his pants on his head or other such japes that may befall a debutant.

He seems assured enough to pass that test with flying colours, too.

Despite the collective sense of everyone else being wearily underwhelmed by it all, it has been a profitable visit for Ireland, if an expensive one for their supporters.

The hosts have been overly gracious but they are merely tenants here. Stadium officials swiftly usher us from one hall to another.

Bedfellows

The soccer crowd are in tomorrow so the rugby folk will be evicted as politely but as quickly as possible. Rugby and Rome remain awkward bedfellows.

A local journalist, by way of a simpering query, suggests that today was like a Serie B basketball side tackling an NBA side before praising the players' bravery; his breath-taking condescension is fittingly Olympian.

Conor O'Shea, impressively flitting between fluent Italian and English, is at pains to stress the enormous task awaiting him.

"Rome wasn't built in a day," Schmidt helpfully points out.

Italian rugby, now, is hopelessly inadequate. Worse, few respect them; Ireland plamás them but their ruthless early strategy of refusing three-point penalties is the true measure of respect, or lack thereof.

Eddie Jones bullishly declares his England will "take them to the cleaners". He speaks only the unvarnished truth. O'Shea knows all this, can see the impatient eyes of a world who may fancy Germany as the next best thing despite Italy's proud rugby heritage.

Sergio Parisse speaks passionately in his mother tongue for several minutes and we are reminded of another Argentinian by birth, Agustin Pichot, and the day in a crumbling Lansdowne Road stadium when he railed against rugby's cosseted old word.

Now he is the head boy in World Rugby and his team are World Cup semi-finalists. Italy's revolution may take much longer.

Parisse's lengthy address is translated for us. "We need to keep our f****** heads held high," he has wailed.

"A lot of great Irish rugby players in the 1990s and without the right support were not able to fulfil what they could," adds O'Shea. Lest we forget, Irish rugby was once laughable, too."We have good players. People will smile wryly and hang their heads. We will never hang our heads."

Rome seems to be an endless exercise in dodging decapitation.

Maybe that is why Ireland are reluctant to put theirs above the parapet just yet.

Irish Independent

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