Tony Ward: Time is right for O'Driscoll to bring the curtain down
It was a poor game to finish a Six Nations campaign that is best forgotten but don't let anyone pretend it was anything other than the right result. The Italians knew this would be their golden opportunity and they grabbed it.
To be in Rome and the stunning venue that is the Stadio Olimpico was special. Awful from an Irish perspective but what we were witnessing was a football-daft country buying into so much more than a relatively meaningless Six Nations game.
The Federation of Italian Rugby is in the process of selling its sport to its people and what better way than by winning. It wasn't pretty on Saturday, was never going to be, but critically for Italian rugby it finished with the desired result. For Declan Kidney and Ireland, it's been one catastrophe after another since the opening game with Wales.
We lost deservedly to England but could and should have beaten both Scotland and France. Injuries have taken their toll with Luke Marshall, Keith Earls and Luke Fitzgerald added to a long list. The rub of the green in this area has certainly deserted us this season.
Some may claim the raft of injuries is proof that we are driving our players into the ground for club and province but our Six Nations rivals exist in the same professional arena. Some will also lay the blame firmly at the head coach's feet, but it is hardly Kidney's fault that we were short almost an entire team of top-end internationals.
However, I do suspect this defeat could well spell the end of the line for the main man. Not because we lost to the improving Italians but because four years is just about right in terms of tenure, preferably from World Cup to World Cup.
Players tire of hearing the same voice repetitively, they need change and coaches too can benefit from a change of scenery. I don't know if Kidney wants to continue anyway but I will be surprised if he does. So too Brian O'Driscoll, whose first-half sin-binning, though totally out of character, bore all the hallmarks of a player at the end of a long and frustrating season.
It has been well recorded how life has taken on new meaning in the O'Driscoll household and for that reason more than any other – aside from one final Lions tour – the time is right to bring the curtain down on a great international career. A new coach could rekindle his international fire but O'Driscoll has nothing left to prove in a green shirt.
As for Saturday, for the opening 10 minutes we exerted control but after that we chased the game bar Sergio Parisse's time in the bin. Ireland's failure to cross for a try then proved crucial as Italy turned the screw after Parisse's return. Loose kicking – the bugbear of the modern game – again cost us dear. In a game built around possession it is incredible how often we (and others) kick it away.
The fact we finished the half with a Paddy Jackson penalty to close the gap to three at 9-6 was a minor miracle in itself. Not that the Italians were consistently cutting us apart but they always appeared the more likely to break through. The second half followed along broadly similar lines as the Italians sensed that this would be their day.
The big decision and the only time we looked like scoring came at 16-12 when opting for a kick at goal to narrow the gap to one when perhaps the scrum would have represented the bolder and, given the flow to that point, wiser option. In going for the penalty the skipper did the sensible thing (just a point behind and 16 minutes still on the clock) but it still felt like an opportunity missed.
In the build-up to the game once Jonny Sexton pulled out we feared the worst. I still expected a narrow Irish win based on the premise of 'dare not lose'.
Jackson now has three caps under his belt, but I fear he is still some way short of the standard of game management required at this level. At Ulster he is surrounded by minders, whereas what Ireland need of their out-half right now is a boss, a game-runner, a real presence.
Whoever takes charge of the squad to Canada and the US should have an open mind and clean slate between Jackson and Ian Madigan because right now, albeit on limited evidence, Madigan looks the more likely. Jackson may well come good in time but the jury is out.
As it transpired, given all the changes, we never threatened again as a little bit of Italian rugby history was created. Wins over France and Ireland have whetted Italian appetites for more and that in the context of an increasingly competitive Six Nations is no bad thing. The whopping Italian crowd stayed on to cheer its team for this well-earned home win.
The fare may have been poor but the feeling on leaving the historic ground was of a rugby nation coming of age. Only time will tell on that count but the abiding memory on this trek to Rome was of a passionate people, in ever increasing numbers, getting more and more behind its team.