Team doesn't know where it's going
Indiscipline and weak bench haunt visitors in dismal end to campaign, writes Neil Francis
We looked for an authentic 80 minutes' performance. A team entranced in the straits of desperation. An XV that just had a superficial understanding of the fundamentals of Test rugby. Yes there was endurance of labour, heart for the occasion and stomach for the battle. We can take in other factors but, the truth is, this team no longer knows where they are going and this coach, after this performance, knows exactly where he is going. Let's hope the IRFU don't turn it into a pantomime.
Italy showed undeviating steadiness of purpose and, despite dominating the physical exchanges, couldn't shake off Ireland who were resolute and unyielding until the 79th minute.
Once again the malignancy and spiritual decline in Ireland's ranks showed itself in three needless yellow cards. Ireland on their day are acquainted with the discourses of not committing stupid penalties. It is a foundation stone of Declan Kidney's sides in former years – the fact that Ireland were giving away penalties for fun and collecting yellow cards showed the terminal decline into which they have entered.
When you count through the paucity of quality on the team which finished the match, you get a sense of Ireland's inadequacies. Our front five were below Rabo standard and our starters, long before they hit the second half, began to sear in the lava of exhaustion.
The quality of Italy's bench was demonstrably better than Ireland's. The fact that the Italians only won by seven points was maybe underpinned by some of the unwarranted confidence which stopped them running away with this game. The Italians, like ourselves, struggle with expectation and have difficulty when they are in the ascendancy piling points on sides.
Although their halves have improved out of all recognition they were not able to control the game as they should have done. The Italian back-row really decided the course of this game and all their best moments came from industry or intelligence from Sergio Parisse or Alessandro Zanni. Sean O'Brien was manful in his defiance but Ireland's back-row were obliterated and even in the rare moments where we went forward there was no continuity, no support, no trail runners coming from deep and nobody able to take a tackle on their own terms and turn to position and off-load for the oncoming cavalry. Ireland alarmingly had one off-load all day.
It has long been my contention that Jacques Brunel is by a distance the best coach in this championship, not that I might add there is an enormous amount of quality floating around in this area. The jump in Italy's collective strategic reasoning and their skill set has been astonishing and this season will bring them further still. It looked like, even from the first five minutes, that they would have enough confidence and belief in their game plan to dispose of an Irish side racked with self-doubt and demonstrating little composure.
If Ireland were to be competitive in this Test match – their tight game would have to stand up to a fairly formidable and resolute Italian eight. I'm still not sure whether it is down to the cycle of the moon or interplanetary alignment as to whether you can garner a performance from Ireland's eight in the tight.
Once again Rory Best looked like he couldn't throw rice at a wedding and some of his under-throws, deep in the Italian 22 in the first half were costly and frustrating. Nearly every other pack in the championship were able to read and cope with the Italian scrummaging style and throughout most of this game Ireland were competent but, when the heat came on and they needed to be absolutely sure of clean ball, Jamie Heaslip was forced to awkwardly pick ball under pressure from a sideways revolving scrum – ball that was useless to man or beast.
Ireland had to kick away a good portion of their useless ball consistently slowed down by Italian tacklers at the breakdown and Conor Murray was unable to repeat his box-kicking tour de force of last week and so yet again we just gave cheap and unchased ball for turnovers to the Italians who were far better at counter-attacking than we were. Andrea Masi seemed to connect far better with his outfield runners than the Irish back three. Rob Kearney was looking to try and create stuff but the lack of chemistry between himself, Craig Gilroy and Keith Earls was obvious and it was a joke shop as the conveyor belt of injuries began to tell – Peter O'Mahony ended up on the wing.
The game meandered into an erratic stop-start with a procession of subs and yellow cards but it was obvious from a long way out that Ireland had run out of ideas and they lost their shape and impetus after no more than a few phases.
Ian Madigan had a few moments but once again Brian O'Driscoll just does not get the ball into his hands often enough and this championship has been significant for him in the amount of ball he's had to chip through as nobody is on the same wavelength mentally, nobody is looking to play off him and nobody is willing to pass the ball to our best player. Earls went off with a dislocated shoulder directly from yet another play where he held onto the ball rather than feed inside to O'Driscoll. Our icon will be lucky not to be cited for the little bit of Riverdance he inflicted on an Italian player who was very slow to roll away.
The game was to be won and lost in and around the 60th minute. Ireland strung their best bit of continuity in the whole game together with Madigan and Cian Healy, the architects of Ireland's march forward. Italy were clever enough to ensure that the closer Ireland got to the try line the slower the ball came until they definitively engaged in an act of larceny which Wayne Barnes penalised but did very little else with. It was the only moment in the match that the Italians looked under pressure for their try line.
The decision to play Luke Marshall was a very dangerous gamble. For anybody who has never had the unpleasant experience of concussion, a bleed on the brain is effectively what the injury is. It is an unpalatable experience and it can be life-threatening. To have two bleeds in your brain in the space of one week can have devastating consequences. I would hope that rugby unions would have more respect for the health and safety of their players irrespective of whether they had passed cog tests or not.
Ireland are now on the floor. They will lose the rump of the most experienced players and they will unquestionably lose their coach and quite possibly a few of his support staff. We do not have very many options and we must now rely on people who traditionally are conservative and move slowly and are reactive as opposed to proactive.
A dreadful championship for Ireland and, for this season, the dreams of a future are better than the history of the past.