By Kieran Rooney
FLAWED. That’s probably the best word to describe Ireland’s 13-11 opening Six Nations victory over Italy at the Stadio Flaminio in Rome.
It required a drop goal from substitute Ronan O’Gara two minutes from time to rescue Ireland. O’Gara, and the Irish team in general, deserve credit for having the composure to snatch victory in such fashion but coach Declan Kidney will reflect on a less than impressive overall display.
Not everything was bad. Quite rightly, they opted to play the game at a high tempo, and there was some very good constructive rugby at times.
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The problem was that when Ireland got inside the opposition “22” they made mistakes. In other words, they failed to avail of their opportunities.
Gordon D’Arcy and Brian O’Driscoll must have lost count of the amount of times they have played together in the centre. They are, by any standards, an outstanding centre partnership.
Yet, on Saturday they looked like complete strangers. D’Arcy, so good for Leinster recently, had a torrid time, dropping a succession of passes.
As a consequence, some real try scoring opportunities were lost. O’Driscoll, for his part, was better, scoring Ireland’s only try of the match early in the second half.
But, by his very high standards, he had a mixed game. Crucially, he threw a pass high over Fergus McFadden’s head when the right-wing had a straight run towards the line.
At the time, in the second half, Ireland were 10-6 ahead and a further score would surely have ended the Italian challenge. It would have forced the home team to chase the game, something they are not built to do.
Instead, they were able to stick to their very physical game plan, based on great set pieces and terrific strength. To give them their due, they did this superbly making life very difficult for Ireland throughout.
Unsurprisingly, the other most worrying areas for Ireland were in the set pieces, particularly the scrum. That said, they were not helped by an extraordinary performance from the French referee Romain Poite.
Ireland found themselves penalized six times in the scrums. At times, it was impossible to figure out why. In all, they had a penalty count of 13-5 against them.
The reason, you would have to think, was that Poite was influenced by the home crowd. Either way, it was a very poor refereeing display but that did not excuse some of the basic errors that Ireland made on Saturday.
As Kidney looks forward to next Sunday’s second outing against France at the Aviva Stadium, he must hope that the backs cut out those errors that cost them tries. Obviously, D’Arcy could come under a bit of pressure, but he is, without question, a much better player than he looked on Saturday.
The main issues may be in the front-row. Kidney has some major sorting out to do because France, showed in their impressive 31-24 victory over Scotland, how strong they are in this area.
Back-row is another area where there are obvious concerns. With Jamie Heaslip and Stephen Ferris unavailable, the mix of Denis Leamy, Sean O’Brien and David Wallace clearly wasn’t right.
Yet, there is a feeling that Ireland are capable of producing a decent performance against the French, providing they can sort out a number of important issues. O’Driscoll, to give him his due, summed up the situation perfectly.
He said: “We felt we were creating a large number of opportunities, but we didn’t finish them off. By bad passing and handling, we let Italy off the hook.
“The fact is that we should not have been in that sort of situation going into the closing minutes. Clearly, we have to look after the ball much better against France.”
Naturally, O’Gara came out of the game with considerable praise for his match winning drop goal. Italy had ended the first half 6-3 in front with two penalties from Bergamasco with Jonathan Sexton replied with one for Ireland.
When O’Driscoll wriggled his way over for Ireland’s try four minutes into the second, and Sexton converted it to make the score 10-6, you would have expected Ireland to move clear. They failed to, mainly because of their problems at the scrum, and the wasted opportunity which saw O’Driscoll throw a pass over McFadden’s head.
Somehow, you knew, that the Italians were going to make them pay. They did, following the sin-binning of Denis Leamy, as the game went into the final five minutes.
Luke McLean got over in the corner to put them 11-10 ahead, but, fortunately for Ireland, Bergamasco saw his conversion attempt from the touchline go narrowly wide. It now required some real composure for Ireland if they were to bounce back in the short time remaining.
The forwards suddenly delivered, securing possession and setting up the platform for O’Gara to land the match winning drop goal from in front of the posts. There is, quite clearly, no player better suited to that situation than the experience Munster out-half.
He has nerves of steel and comes into his own in such circumstances. Asked about it afterwards, O’Gara initially paid tribute to his team-mates for winning possession from the restart after McLean’s score.
“The lads did a great job to provide me with the opportunity.” he stressed. “I just felt very relaxed. It was great. At that stage you go into autopilot and you don’t think too much. You do your job and you kick it over the bar.”
Wolfhounds beat Saxons
IT proved to be winning weekend for Irish rugby, with the Irish Wolfhounds and the Irish Under 20 team both securing victories.
The Irish Wolfhounds, formerly Ireland A, scored an excellent 20-11 success over the England Saxons in dreadful conditions at Ravenhill. It was very welcome, given that the Wolfhounds had gone down in their opening encounter in Scotland.
They were an awful lot better at Ravenhill, scoring two tries through Munster wing Denis Hurley and Ulster back-row Chris Henry. The remainder of the points came from the boot of Ulster out-half Ian Humphreys.
The exciting young Ulster player Craig Gilroy was a key figure in the Ireland Under 20 team’s 28-9 victory over Italy in Parma. Gilroy, playing at full-back, scored two tries as Ireland had to fight hard to come out on top against a very aggressive Italian outfit.
Another Dungannon youngster, out-half Paddy Jackson, contributed 13 points with the boot, and Ireland’s third try came from prop John Tracy.
Just to complete matters, the Irish women’s team also made a winning start, beating the Italians 26-5 in Rovigo.
Kidney offers condolences
IT’S fair to say that sport was put in perspective following the death of Carrickfergus Grammar student Ben Robinson.
Fittingly, Irish rugby coach Declan Kidney joined the expression of condolences following the the 14-year-old’s recent collapse towards the end of a match against Delriea.
Kidney said: “Can I, on behalf of the Irish squad and management, pass on my heartfelt thoughts and prayers to the Robinson family. It’s every parent’s nightmare, the thoughts of the coaches and players are with them. Everything else is secondary compared to this.”