Brian O’Driscoll given fitting send-off by Ireland
Ireland mark O’Driscoll’s last Test match in Dublin with convincing victory over Italy
Ireland 46 Italy 7
Brian O’Driscoll has demonstrated impeccable timing throughout his career, so it hardly constituted a surprise that on the afternoon that he became the most capped player (140) in the history of the sport, breaking the great Australian scrumhalf George Gregan’s mark, he produced a performance commensurate with the occasion.
Forget about sentimentality in the decision to award O’Driscoll the man-of the- match accolade, it was thoroughly merited on the strength of his performance. His fingerprints could be found on three of Ireland’s seven tries, while there were turnovers, tackles and line-breaks to energise a crowd that had come to pay homage.
He might not be as quick as he was but there is nothing shabby about his other faculties, particularly his appreciation of space on a rugby pitch, how to create it and exploit it: today, he selflessly put others through gaps or sent them scampering to the whitewash.
When Ireland were periodically becalmed in terms of momentum, or struggling to escape the shackles of a vigilant and in the opening 40 minutes largely effective and well organised Italian defence, he invariably found a way.
The standing ovation he received when departing the pitch on 62 minutes to be replaced by the excellent Fergus McFadden was greeted by a thunderous roar, the Irish supporters first opportunity on the afternoon to thank a player who has brought great honour and honours to the green jersey.
The roar of approbation that greeted his every touch underlined the desperation of the crowd to celebrate his final home game with Ireland at every turn and he gave them enough encouragement. In some respects cheering him on distracted the crowd from what was a fitful performance from the home side.
The first half was a curious affair from an Irish perspective. There was no shortage of perspiration, the invention was there, width too, but the precision was missing. Small things underlined the adventure.
Ireland’s passing while crisp, didn’t engage defenders with the result that the Italian blue line drifted onto the final ball carrier, smothering him and this meant that the home side had to commit bodies to rucks to try and rescue possession.
The knock-on effect was that Ireland were short of numbers when they looked to shift possession; it served to narrow Ireland’s avenues of attack. They spent a large part of the opening quarter attacking around the fringes in cluttered corridors.
Players made mistakes, some uncharacteristic, some borne of trying to force the issue at a time when Ireland were struggling to translate their dominance on the pitch to the scoreboard. There was a cornucopia of mistakes, handling errors, pushed passes, missed tackles, lateral running and questionable option taking.
Second half highlights
Yet for all these errors it could not distract from the fact that Ireland were dominant at set-piece, excelling in scrum, lineout and driving maul - particularly after the departure of Martin Castrogiovanni on six minutes - and that an abundance of possession was a decent platform if they could just improve their accuracy a tad.
Ireland initially denied Italy a foothold, stealing a lineout here and there and shoving the Italians off their own scrum ball. When the Italians secured some possession they demonstrated nice width on their patterns and slick handling.
However, it was the home side that struck first with a try whose genesis came from the training ground. Form a scrum on the Italian 22, Jonathan Sexton looped around Brian O’Driscoll, who had taken a short line and come to inside centre with Gordon D’Arcy drifting wide. The Italians bit down on the gambit with Michele Campagnaro jumping out and this allowed Sexton to glide through a gap and cross for a try. He added the conversion.
Ireland lost Conor Murray to what was described as nausea but his replacement Eoin Reddan had an outstanding game, speeding up possession and offering a constant threat to the Italian backrow. The home side spurned a couple of gilt edged chances, including one when it appeared harder not to score as they lost the ball over the Italian line.
Then, from nowhere the Italians equalised. Andrew Trimble appeared to have neutered a backline move when stepping in to make a thunderous tackle but as O’Driscoll tried to hack the ball forward, it slewed off his boot to Leonardo Sarto. The Italian wing tiptoed down the touchline and with little space beat some insipid defence from Rob and Dave Kearney to cross for a try. Luciano Orquera added the conversion and the Italians were level.
The visitors’ line continued to lead a charmed existence, Reddan and Cian Healy both came close but when the Italians transgressed, referee Nigel Owens awarded a penalty but bizarrely not a yellow card, even though the offence had taken place just a metre from the line.
Sexton kicked a penalty and then after Italian fullback Luke McLean’s break had raised Irish heart-rates as he charged into the 22, the home side escaped down the other end of the pitch: O’Driscoll’s basketball style pass allowed Trimble to step between two tacklers. Sexton converted and at 17-7 at half-time Ireland coach Joe Schmidt would have been . . . less unhappy.
The home side scored at regular intervals in the second half starting with Healy’s try on 52 minutes and then another by replacement hooker Sean Cronin on 69 minutes. The bench had a positive impact in freshening up the team mentally and physically and allowing the home side to finish strongly.
This was emphasised by two tries in the last four minutes from McFadden - very sharp on his introduction - and another replacement Jack McGrath. It nudged Ireland’s point differential out to +81, a 60-point cushion on England who meet Wales tomorrow at Twickenham.
While the performance was undermined by sloppiness at times, there were several conspicuously excellent performances, O’Driscoll, Gordon D’Arcy, once again, Sexton and Reddan behind the scrum. Andrew Trimble was sharp in possession, Rob Kearney ran ball back aggressively while brother Dave had to survive on meagre rations.
Up front Healy’s ball carrying was a useful attacking buttress, Mike Ross straightened more intelligently than some of his team-mates, the secondrow was long on industry, while Iain Henderson had a super game.
But the player to rival O’Driscoll as Ireland’s best player was number eight Jamie Heaslip.
He was immense, carrying, tackling, rescuing, clearing out and offloading; a one man dervish in his work ethic.
There’s plenty to improve upon for next week’s trip to the Stade de France Paris when the championship will be in the offing. Paris in the springtime shouldn’t carry the same foreboding for this group of players.
How appropriate that O’Driscoll’s career, which burst into life in a green jersey with his hat-trick in 2000, should be bookended by his final appearance at the same venue. The same outcome would provide the perfect postscript to the career of a marvellous footballer, one of the greatest of all-time, worldwide.
6 mins: Sexton try, Sexton conversion, 7-0; 25 mins: Sarto try, Orquera conversion, 7-7; 31 mins: Sexton penalty, 10-7; 38 mins: Trimble try, Sexton conversion, 17-7. Half-time: 17-7. 52 mins: Healy try, 22-7; 59 mins: Sexton try, 27-7; 69 mins: Cronin try, Jackson conversion, 34-7; 77 mins: McFadden try, Jackson conversion, 41-7; 81 mins: McGrath try, 46-7.
Ireland: R Kearney (Leinster); A Trimble (Ulster), B O’Driscoll (Leinster), G D’Arcy (Leinster), D Kearney (Leinster); J Sexton (Racing Metro 92), C Murray (Munster); C Healy (Leinster), R Best (Ulster), M Ross (Leinster); P O’Connell (Munster, capt), D Toner (Leinster); I Henderson (Ulster), C Henry (Ulster), J Heaslip (Leinster). Replacements: E Reddan (Leinster) for Murray 16 mins; J McGrath (Leinster) for Healy 53 mins; R Ruddock (Leinster) for Henderson 53 mins; S Cronin (Leinster) for Best 53 mins; M Moore (Leinster) for Ross 56 mins; F McFadden (Leinster) for O’Driscoll 61 mins; P Jackson (Ulster) for Sexton 62 mins; J Murphy (Leinster) for Henry 73 mins.
Italy: L McLean (Treviso); A Esposito (Treviso), M Campagnaro (Treviso), G Garcia (Zebre), L Sarto (Zebre); L Orquera (Zebre), T Tebaldi (Ospreys); A de Marchi (Treviso), L Ghiraldini (Treviso), M Castrogiovanni (Toulon); Q Geldenhuys (Zebre), M Bortalami (Zebre); J Furno (Biarritz Olympique), P Derbyshire (Treviso), R Barbieri (Treviso). Replacements: L Cittadini (Treviso) for Castrogiovanni 7 mins; M Vosawai (Treviso) for Derbyshire 33-38 and 56 mins; M Rizzo (Treviso) for de Marchi 56 mins; , L Cittadini (Treviso), A Pavanello (Treviso) for Bortolami 63 mins; T Allan (Perpignan) for Orquera 62 mins; A Masi (Wasps) for Garcia 62 mins; D Giazzon (Zebre) for Ghiraldini 70 mins; E Gori (Treviso) for Tebaldi 70 mins; De Marchi for Cittadini 70 mins.
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales).
Assistant referees: Pascal Gauzere (France) and Greg Garner (England)