On the way to a hugely unconvincing 16-11 victory, Ireland performed once again with shaking hands, dry mouths and a nagging headache. We had been told by the IRFU, who in its wisdom had signed up coach Eddie O?Sullivan for a further four years before the World Cup, that the tournament had been a mere blip, so what was last Saturday’s embarrassment?
Bereft of inspiration on the pitch, and of atmosphere off it, Croke Park resembled a morgue in comparison with the heady days of last season’s games against England and France. As Italy grew in self-belief, the closing minutes of the game saw Ireland hanging on by a thread.
Of the players badly in need of rejuvenation, only Ronan O’Gara, and to a lesser extent, Eoin Reddan, delivered the necessary goods. By his elevated standards, Brian O’Driscoll continues to struggle, while the likes of Rory Best and Simon Easterby are likely to be dropped for Saturdays intimidating contest against France in Paris.
For Gordon D’Arcy, now a pale shadow of the center who once terrorized defenses across Europe, a broken wrist will cause him to miss the remainder of the championship, and so poor is his current form that a period of rest might be exactly what he needs.
In general, the team is desperately short of confidence, and the mystery remains as to how a group of players that was ranked in the top four in the world just a few months ago could have fallen so far.
O’Sullivan, meanwhile, remains one of the world’s most accomplished coaches, but it appears that the relationship between him and his players has broken down. Where once Ireland were decisive and full of direction, now O’Sullivan’s charges seem to be racked by uncertainty. Perhaps after nearly seven years, the players have simply grown weary of the same voice.
Admittedly, last Saturday’s start was reasonable, and when Girvan Dempsey ran through for the game’s first try after 20 minutes, there was expectation that Ireland would kick on. Without the injured Paul O’Connell, there was once again the lack of physicality that had been so costly at the World Cup, and gradually Italy began to dominate.
A try by their prop Martin Castrogiovanni on the hour mark closed the gap to five points, and despite O’Sullivan sending in five substitutes, the final quarter was marked as much by Irish anxiety as anything else.
With Wales, under former Ireland coach Warren Gatland, surprisingly getting the better of England by 26-19, and with a new-look France demolishing Scotland by 27-6, the championship is certainly wide open, but if the Irish fail to perform in Paris on Saturday, O’Sullivan will come under even more pressure.
The team is in a rut, the coach is on the defensive, and hope of redemption after the World Cup is fading fast.