Comment: Ireland flirted with apocalypse... that was very uncomfortable viewing
IF Joe Schmidt’s wish was to dam the rising waterway of World Cup expectation then, maybe, he might consider this a triumph.
On almost every other level, as Ireland, for an hour and more, flirted with apocalypse, as the chill wind of catastrophe gusted across the landmark east London arena, their coach would have been cheerless and a little spooked.
Italy – 14th in the world rankings to Ireland’s fourth, winners of just four of their most recent 27 games, 21-point underdogs with the odds-layers - ushered the sleepwalking green battalion to the edge of the abyss.
In what many anticipated would be a swatting aside of a withered rugby nation, the last phase of phoney war ahead of next Sunday’s defining battle with France, Ireland’s reputation suffered a deep lesion.
This was a deeply uncomfortable afternoon, an antidote to the virus of uncontained optimism which has accompanied Schmidt's side into this tournament.
For sizeable, slipshod chunks of this contest Ireland were pedestrian, only fleetingly rising above ramshackle, a havoc of incoherence, one massive, magnificent try-saving Peter O’Mahony tackle from full-blown crisis.
In danger of flatlining, Ireland struggled to locate the defibrillator: The jolt of inspiration that might have restored them to full health never came.
If that seems a pitiless analysis of a victory which, after all, secured quarter-final qualification with a game to spare, if England would happily trade places, then the absence of fury, the inarticulate fumbling was disturbing.
Schmidt’s game reviews are infamously unforgiving: A censor would be certain to X-rate this morning’s video nasty.
Ireland were half-cocked, error-strewn; a chaos of inaccuracy, indisciplined, lateral, passive, devoid of energy, disjointed, a step off the pace.
Italy, just a week after thrashing about falteringly against Canada, were on Ireland's shirttails entering the final quarter; when Ireland sought to speed toward the finishing line, they found the accelerator unresponsive.
Instead they were compelled to retreat to a kicking game: Ireland won, but this felt like a moral defeat.
Paul O’Connell’s assessment was the most accurate intervention by an Irish player all afternoon: “It was a disappointing performance, we put down too many passes, we handed them balls on a plate and when we do that we struggle. We will have to improve massively for France."
O’Mahony, until a late yellow card, was immense; Iain Henderson brought a degree of much needed belligerence, Conor Murray offered a hint of control down the stretch, but collectively this was a significant wobble, one that prompted some sober reassessments from the vast Irish hordes who, up to now, had been giddy with imaginings of unprecedented glory.
To take a detour towards a good news story, there was Keith Earls becoming Ireland’s all-time leading World Cup try scorer.
In full supersonic flight, Earls devours the ground so hungrily, so swiftly, the surprise is the absence of an accompanying sonic boom.
His movement is reminiscent of the crack of a bullwhip, almost too snappy for the human eye; an emerald, winged blur.
Other than Usain Bolt – a recent high-profile guest of Joe Schmidt – nobody in the Irish camp would live with the Limerick missile over 100 metres.
That high voltage acceleration electrified Romania last weekend, drawing Earls alongside Brian O’Driscoll on seven World Cup tries.
But diverted from wing to midfield here, the task for Earls became more cerebral.
His response was among the few upbeat interventions on an afternoon when a thick fog of Irish anxiety floated across the skies of the English capital.
A record-breaking touchdown – an early announcement of the game-changing menace which oozes from his nascent partnership with Robbie Henshaw - was the headline act.
It might be insufficient to persuade Joe Schmidt to reconsider whether that outside centre territory should once more become the house of Payne.
But Earls’ predatory skills helped Ireland dodge a bullet here.
When Schmidt was asked before kick-off what he most urgently required from a potentially intoxicating new centre pairing of Earls and Rob Henshaw, the Kiwi was unequivocal: “I want them to be dead solid defensively”.
Then, with a grin, he modified his response, identifying the Munster player’s acceleration and footwork providing the “excitement factor.”
For the try, he ran a perfect line off the hard-running Henshaw’s shoulder after a rare fluent passage of play began with O’Mahony’s line-out steal.
If that offered a picture of imminent slaughter, it was a mirage, a fiction.
Before kick-off, the mantra about Italy marking a significant upgrade in quality of opponent seemed a little fanciful.
They have been a team in precipitous decline, atomised in its two most recent jousts with Ireland, 31 points the average deficit, which teetered on the brink against Canada a week ago.
Yet here, one defeat from joining England in the World Cup dustbowl, Italy reached back into the past to find the very best of themselves.
The Azzuri delivered monstrous aggression: Inflamed by the challenge of what was, effectively, their own final, a win-or-bust shot at redemption, they were incontinent with Latin intensity, emotionally supercharged.
They were helped by Ireland’s error-count, by the absence of any rhythm, the dearth of clinical quality, by a performance bankrupt of quality.
Without O’Mahony’s heroic tackle on Josha Furno, Ireland might now be in the grip of an even deeper torment.
As it is Ireland remain unbeaten, have advanced to the Elite Eight, have Freddie Michalak and France in their crosshairs.
But looked at through newly sober Irish eyes, the Webb Ellis Trophy suddenly seemed as remote, as elusive as the distant galaxies.