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Strip away Mallett's bluster and there's not much left

"Put all your eggs in one basket -- and watch that basket!" Mark Twain, 'The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson'

A few minutes after Italy's defeat of the Eagles in Nelson last Tuesday, I offered Nick Mallett my congratulations on a result that kept the Azzurri's World Cup hopes very much alive. His response was gruff and palpably dismissive. "It was an ugly affair," he shrugged. "We just needed the bonus point." With that, he walked away, not a murmur of commiseration offered for the US eviction from the tournament.

Humility clearly isn't Nick's thing and, minutes later, he was in the media room throwing down the gauntlet to Ireland's front-row for tomorrow's Pool decider in Dunedin.

That's his style, I suppose. He is a man on a mission in New Zealand and, right now, sees little or nothing beyond the imperatives of that mission. This may not make him gracious or especially likable, but the South African won't give a damn if he guides Italy to a quarter-final.

That said, his disdain for Tuesday's "ugly affair" seemed a mite disingenuous, given the Azzurri's stated intention of reducing tomorrow to a one-dimensional battle of the packs.

Clearly the great aesthete in Mallett finds expression only when it suits him. Every indication suggests he has taken Twain's advice and put all his eggs in the basket of the Italian scrum for this game. That is a high-risk strategy, especially given the ammunition he has already handed Declan Kidney with a declaration of Italy knowing "perfectly well that we've got a better front-row than Ireland".

If that sentence hasn't been waved in front of the noses of Cian Healy, Rory Best and Mike Ross this week, I'd be very surprised. That said, the Italians talking up their scrum isn't exactly something new. In 2004, they did likewise before a Six Nations game at Lansdowne Road, John Kirwan openly declaring their intention to demolish the Irish front-row of Reggie Corrigan, Shane Byrne and John Hayes.

Kirwan wasn't bluffing. Instead of beginning the game by kicking the ball the requisite 10 metres, the Italian out-half, Roland de Marigny, just toe poked it a couple of metres across the half-way line to precipitate a scrum.

Italy were penalised for collapsing the resultant set-piece but, unfortunately, David Humphreys missed the kick at goal from half-way. Had he scored, it would have been interesting to see if De Marigny would have chosen the same tactic to restart the game.

Ireland won 19-3 that day, with Malcolm O'Kelly, Brian O'Driscoll and Shane Horgan all crossing for tries. Maybe Italy's tactics kept the score down, but they were never designed to win them the game. Likewise tomorrow. If Italy choose to be the 'one-trick pony' Mallett seems to be proposing, Ireland will already have one foot in the quarter-finals.

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Forewarned is forearmed and, despite morbid predictions from some quarters, the Irish scrum has been rock solid throughout this tournament. They comfortably out-muscled both the US and Russia and their demolition of the Wallaby scrum was, arguably, the biggest talking point of RWC 2011 so far.

Mallett's difficulty is that he senses he's got to beat some kind of drum for Italy's Plan A because he knows they don't have a Plan B.

He's in a pretty odd place right now. As far back as January, the Italian Federation bizarrely announced that Perpignan coach Jacques Brunel would take over after this World Cup. That clearly came as news to Mallett, who made little secret of the fact that he was unhappy with the news and, more pointedly, he had the support of the players.

Ever since, he has looked a man hell-bent on proving that the Italian Federation are guilty of poor judgment. He did this up to a point in the Six Nations, when only Ronan O'Gara's last-ditch drop-goal in Rome denied Italy a famous victory over Ireland and, of course, they then defeated France for the first time in the tournament's history. Now Mallett's raison d'etre is to propel the Azzurri into a World Cup quarter-final and, in a sense, deliver the ultimate slap in the face to the Italian Federation before his departure.

He's been obsessing about the Ireland game ever since Italy beat Russia in their second Pool game, so much so that his captain -- Sergio Parisse -- had to quickly interject at a press conference that they still had the US to play too.

Yes, they put us to the sword eventually last Tuesday, but it's fair to say we proved slightly more awkward opposition than the mere speed bump Mallett clearly anticipated. You could detect the relief in their coaches' box when George Clancy awarded a second-half penalty try that assured them of the vital bonus point.

It would have been nice if Nick acknowledged a decent US performance afterwards but, frankly, I don't think magnanimity is his strong point.

Regardless of what the Italians believe, there's little evidence that they can demolish the Irish scrum tomorrow. Maybe it's just a ploy to pressure the referee, but Jonathan Kaplan is an official I have gotten to know well over the last 10 years and one I have the utmost respect for. He may be a compatriot of Mallett's, but he's a straight-shooter who tends to retain the courage of his convictions. Trying to pull the wool over Kaplan's eyes will not work for Italy.

I expect the Azzurri to play percentage rugby and try to keep the game a low-scoring affair. They will look to dominate field position by kicking long and pinning Ireland in their own half, hoping to force errors. Sitting back would be a mistake for Ireland. The pack can go toe-to-toe with Italy, but it's behind the scrum that our advantages lie.

Running is the best form of attack against this Italian team. The Eagles adopted that strategy last Tuesday based on Italy's lack of mobility and the more tackles they had to make and the further they had to run to make them, the more uncomfortable they would become.

There is an inherent risk in running so much, especially when initiated from deep in your own half. But Ireland possess the class behind the scrum to move Italy around, make inroads into enemy territory and, most importantly, hold onto the ball. Should they excel in these areas, the game could turn out to be more comfortable than expected.

When you step back from all of Mallett's bluster, the Italians have few enough aces up their sleeve. His eggs are all in the one basket.

No prizes for guessing who the Pudd'nhead will be when it's over.


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