Ireland eternally grateful to O'Gara in Rome
SIX NATIONS CHAMPIONSHIP: Italy 11 Ireland 13:RONAN RIDES to the rescue once more. It had looked a slightly harsh call on Jonathan Sexton to haul him off 14 minutes from time, given most of the ill-discipline and mistakes which had undone almost all of Ireland’s good work had little to do with him.
But cometh the hour. Or, more pertinently, the last-ditch endgame and a drop goal to snatch victory from defeat, and there’s no man you’d rather have lining up the kick than Ronan O’Gara. The master.
When Ireland’s defence then restricted Luciano Orquera to a speculative, long-range drop goal, several Italian players slumped to the ground.
Their supporters didn’t quite know what to do, mixing applause for the Azzurri’s gallantry with stunned silence and a few half-hearted boos – more in protest at the outcome than any injustices, for even this home crowd couldn’t perceive any reason to blame the referee.
It should never have come to that. Ireland created enough gilt-edged chances to have put the game to bed long before the Azzurri and their supporters were encouraged to regain interest. Viewed in that light then, there was plenty to commend in their approach and intentions.
Yet it was also a curate’s egg of a performance and a little one-dimensional.
As Brian O’Driscoll said afterwards, Ireland kept their shape better in attack than they have been doing of late. In the 20th minute, the depth and width off one of innumerable multi-phase attacks which saw the halves and midfield move the ball from right to left drew an audible gasp from the crowd.
Only Alberto Sgarbi’s superb covering tackle denied Sexton after Luke Fitzgerald switched inside off Keith Earls’ offload.
Sexton controlled the often tricky Mitre ball which the Italians use, with its smaller sweet spot, superbly, and put in some excellent kicks, especially with the slight breeze in the second half.
But, for the most part, Ireland sought to set up their target runners – mostly the backrows and mostly in the 10-12 channel – and go through the phases.
The problem was the Italian defence was very well organised, keeping its shape.
Donncha O’Callaghan, who had a good, focused game and emerged with a clean rap sheet, was employed more than usual in the lineout as Paul O’Connell was eased into the swing of things.
But that none of the “samey” backrow was used for off-the-top ball from the tail, which would have allowed the midfield to attack flatter, compounded the lack of variety.
In one sense, Ireland continued where they left off against Scotland in last season’s Six Nations finale. The five handling errors of the first 20 minutes revived memories of that defeat, and though this panned out a little differently, mistakes continued to blight them as they butchered chances.
Had the All Blacks created the same opportunities they’d have won by 30 or 40. Ireland, at their best, should have won by 20-plus.
The stand-out error, remarkably, was O’Driscoll’s high pass which cleared Fergus McFadden for the second time in the match rather than put him over in the corner in the 56th minute, after a turnover by the Italians and rumbles by Tomás O’Leary and O’Callaghan.
Twelve minutes earlier, O’Driscoll’s try and what proved an invaluable conversion by Sexton had made it 10-6, and the Italians were cracking: Ireland would probably have pulled clear with another try at that point. Soon after, Gordon D’Arcy knocked on close to the line in a tackle by Kris Burton.
Invariably, such profligacy would be punished. As coach Declan Kidney had warned, the biggest single difference on foot of Italy’s entry into the Magners League is that they have become more of an 80-minute team.
Sure enough, Sergio Parisse (a force of nature in contact) nailed O’Leary at the base for a second time as Ireland again under-committed to the ruck, and the flow of psychic energy ebbed back to the home team and crowd.
Playing to their set-piece strengths, their maul and scrum were injected with fresh energy. They could smell a first Six Nations win over Ireland. It seemed to affect referee Romain Poite too.
Credit in spades therefore to the way Mike Ross almost literally dug his heels in and refused to budge – such was the pressure you could almost feel the tremor in the ground – as the Azzurri opted for a scrum from a penalty entering the last 10 minutes.
The huge divot Ross left was his line in the sand. Hats off too to Cian Healy after Monsieur Poite threatened to award a penalty try a couple of resets later.
Even so, after a yellow card to Denis Leamy for hands in a ruck – almost an after-thought by Poite – intense Italian pressure had seemingly earned them a well-executed, winning try by Luke McLean after superb hands by Gonzalo Garcia.
Indeed, the Azzurri back line moved much more menacingly after Garcia and Orquera entered the fray, the latter taking the ball flatter than Burton.
However, like the endgames in Cardiff in 2003 and ’09, it then came down to each side chasing down restarts and setting up drop-goal attempts. Ireland were profoundly more effective. O’Connell, in an otherwise subdued performance, claimed O’Gara’s hanging restart and Seán O’Brien and O’Driscoll made the hard yards for the ice-cool man to bisect the posts. He turned away as soon as he struck it. In that sense, this was not a jammy win.
They went and won it with 14 men.
HOW THEY LINED OUT:
3 mins:Bergamasco pen 3-0; 27: Sexton pen 3-3; 40(+1): Bergamasco pen 6-3 (half-time); 44: O’Driscoll try, Sexton con 6-10; 75: McLean try 11-10; 78: O’Gara drop goal 11-13.
ITALY:L McLean (Benetton Treviso); A Masi (Racing Metro), G Canale (Clermont Auvergne), A Sgarbi (Benetton Treviso), M Bergamasco (Racing Metro); K Burton (Benetton Treviso), E Gori (Benetton Treviso); S Perugini (Aironi), L Ghiraldini (Benetton Treviso), M Castrogiovanni (Leicester Tigers), S Dellape (Racing Metro), Q Geldenhuys (Aironi), J Sole (Aironi), A Zanni (Benetton Treviso), S Parisse (Stade Francais, capt). Replacements: P Canavosio (Aironi) for Gori (10 mins), A Lo Cicero (Racing Metro) for Perugini (36-40, 64 mins), V Bernabo (Benetton Treviso) for Sole (51 mins), C Del Fava (Aironi) for Dellape (56 mins), F Ongaro (Aironi) for Ghiraldini (64 mins), G Garcia (Benetton Treviso) for Sgarbi (69 mins), L Orquera (Brive) for Burton (72 mins).
IRELAND:L Fitzgerald (Leinster); F McFadden (Leinster), B O’Driscoll (Leinster, capt), G D’Arcy (Leinster), K Earls (Munster); J Sexton (Leinster); T O’Leary (Munster); C Healy (Leinster), R Best (Ulster), M Ross (Leinster), D O’Callaghan (Leinster), P O’Connell (Munster), D Leamy (Munster), D Wallace (Munster), S O’Brien (Leinster).
Replacements:E Reddan (Leinster) for O’Leary (64 mins), R O’Gara (Munster) for Sexton (66 mins), L Cullen (Leinster) for O’Connell (74 mins), T Court for Ross, S Cronin for Best, P Wallace for D’Arcy (all 76 mins). Not used: S Jennings (Leinster).
Sinbinned:Leamy (74 mins).
Referee:Romain Poite (France).