A late drop goal from Ronan O’Gara rescued Ireland’s Six Nations campaign from a disastrous start.Ireland approached the game in Rome as twelve point favourites in the bookies’ eyes but will be immensely relieved with the narrow win secured in the end. A spirited Italian team seemed suddenly refreshed from an apparent rest at the start of the second half to apply serious pressure on the Irish defence late on. The clinical and orchestrated response from Ireland will hearten Declan Kidney but there was plenty to concern the Irish coach also.
The attacking gameplan deployed by the visitors was apparent from the opening phases of possession. Ireland were keen to put width on the game and Sexton fired passes to wingers and backrowers operating close to both touchlines. The tactic was designed to stretch the resolute Italian defence as thinly as possible and it paid dividends for a couple of linebreaks on the left wing early on. The problem was in the lack of variations. There were no loops from Sexton that have been so effective for Leinster. The centres were largely reduced to conduits, shuffling the ball onwards from ruck to wing. There was little depth to the Irish attack, everyone was lateral and the running was predictable.
The intention to keep the ball away from the strong Italian pack was probably correct but the execution needed to be more subtle and more varied. You need to keep a defence honest by asking questions close-in, put them on the back foot before throwing it wide. In any event you can’t allow opponents the advantage of knowing the strike-point of every attack. Ireland were determined to coax the Italians out of their defensive system but failed to establish their dominance before trying to exploit it.
It was a curious game for many of the backline. They were heavily involved in possession but rarely had opportunities to execute set plays behind a pack that was struggling at the basics. The lineouts were a disappointment, the scrum remains a huge concern. Too many lineouts ended with handling errors and the ones that did succeed were mainly used as platforms for backrow runners in midfield. There was no first phase ball given to the backs to play off and as a consequence, a rich source of tries for Ireland in recent years was completely dry.
The scrum was a microcosm of everything that’s wrong with the game of rugby these days. The referee was as important as any of the personnel involved, and the time wasted on waiting for restarts tested the patience of everyone. Ireland were soundly beaten on most scrums but were curiously competitive on the three most important: a steady scrum provided the platform for O’Driscoll’s try, a huge defensive effort kept Italy at bay in the final 10 minutes and a seven-man scrum managed to hold it together long enough to retain possession immediately prior to O’Gara’s decisive drop goal.
The lineout can be fixed quicker than the scrum but the handling errors that peppered Ireland’s attacking play were as much a cause of the poor performance. Both D’Arcy and O’Driscoll threw away tries with bad handling. There opportunities to end the game as a contest midway through the second half but Ireland weren’t brutally ruthless enough to take advantage. Better opposition in future weeks will provide a sterner test and Ireland won’t win without taking the chances that were offered up in the second half today.
There are plenty of selection decisions to be made by Kidney before the game against France next weekend. The front row didn’t solve the scrum problem, though it’s probable Hayes or Buckley would have fared worse, and the back row looked unbalanced. Court will come into the reckoning for a starting position against a French scrum blooded on Scotland. Injuries will dictate the composition of the backrow but Leamy’s indisciplined performance will probably force him down the pecking order. O’Brien was impressive and will surely be retained with Ferris, Heaslip or Jennings all in contention for a place.
Neither starting half back was particularly impressive today, though Sexton can point to the scrum half as part of the reason why he didn’t excel. O’Leary’s performance was disappointingly predictable in its limitations. His attacking threat around the fringe and his physical defence were low key also so he may find himself out of the team for the visit of the French. Bowe is not a certainty to return from injury next week so the backline may remain unchanged but both D’Arcy and McFadden might feel under pressure. Paddy Wallace carried the ball further in one possession than either managed over the previous 80 minutes but the real missing link is a specialist winger and only the return of Bowe or Trimble will change that situation.
Ireland were poor today but there’s a temptation to conclude they were fortunate due to the timing of their victory. The reality was that the game was always Ireland’s to win and the fact they nearly threw it away was the real concern, not whether the win was merited which it undoubtedly was. A more decisive victory would have been infinitely more pleasing but the late recovery was expertly taken and the show of strength from the bench can only be a positive.