Management of our bench left much to be desired
Provincial side would have dealt with the issues better
As Wayne Barnes threw his arm up signalling the TMO’s decision that Italy had indeed scored a try, the clock stood 48 minutes and 22 seconds. At that stage the Irish pack was made up of Cian Healy, a potential Lions Test starter, Rory Best, ditto, and Mike Ross, potential Lions’ squad.
Behind them was Donnacha Ryan, another potential Lion, beside Mike McCarthy, find of the Autumn Series. The next row back was Jamie Heaslip, Test Lion, with Seán O’Brien, potential Test Lion, and Iain Henderson, who has a bright future. At scrumhalf was Conor Murray, another with Lions aspirations. Outside him was Declan Kidney’s first-choice starting outhalf, save Jonny Sexton, so the second best outhalf in Ireland.
The midfield was made up of our greatest ever player and inside him Ian Madigan who on foot of his energy and comfort on the gain line would look very comfortable at outhalf. The fullback was another Lions Test player Rob Kearney and on one wing Craig Gilroy, another find of the autumn.
It was hardly ideal what brought us to this point but with the exception of Peter O’Mahony on the wing it was a pretty impressive Irish side. So why all the panic, why all the need for damage limitations, for survival, why the need for ill discipline and yellow cards?
Italy had 23 players in their squad as did Ireland. For a variety of reasons our 23 were not good enough and in asking why, the current state of the camp is of crucial importance to the answer.
What is going on? If a provincial side faced similar challenges they would have remained competitive. Ireland conversely have managed to remain uncompetitive for vast periods of the championship.
Although strange, it is not unusual for backrow forwards to end up on the blindside wing covering injury or yellow cards. O’Mahony is a fine player and had it been against the All Blacks in full flow it would have been a horrid experience for him, but the Italians really didn’t test his new-found position which lessoned the blow defensively but certainly eroded our attack. Not, however, to the extent of major capitulation.
The 21 phases Ireland put together 15 minutes after the Italian try tells what could have been all season, which highlighted the fundamental gulf between Italy and Ireland. In that period Ireland were crisp, direct and attacked the space in the Italian defence by receiving at flat-out pace on the gain line.
The opening 14 phases had Italy reeling and it wasn’t until scrumhalf Edoardo Gori killed ball illegally under his own posts that Italy got any purchase. Paddy Jackson got three points but Gori should have been binned and Ireland should have grown stronger and didn’t. Where was the belief?
Italy had a very discernible game plan that centred on the blindside and narrow channels where their sublime off-loading skills came into play. They crammed the 10 channel with big bruisers and rewound down the blindside consistently where they, like the French of yore, interplayed gaining massive yardage. Inexplicably they played far too much rugby inside their own half which afforded Ireland a massive pressure release when extremely vulnerable.
Giovanbattista Venditti, the monster winger, couldn’t help himself in counter-attacking into heavy traffic, conceding a silly penalty which Ireland missed. But had Italy more tactical awareness Venditti could have done far more damage further up field.
Clearly the unfolding weeks have been surreal, oscillating from a devastating injury front, through the continuing strange policy of the bench, all the way to a poor rugby plan. In essence it wasn’t as if Italy were facing 10 Irish players or Irish players who had never played rugby before or were under 18.
Not unlike Twickenham last season, when Ross exited injured, the knock-on effect damaged aspects of our game that are fundamental such as passing, kicking, lineouts, scrums and general play.
The quality of our general play had nothing to do with the lineout malfunctioning which was very damaging. Especially those early attack lineouts deep in the Italian 22, which completely stunted Ireland’s potential.
Benchmark that to three lineouts in a row from Italy from inside their 22 all the way to an attacking maul resulting in their first three points; simple, well executed and devastatingly rewarding on minimal effort.
Thankfully they were happy to make life that bit harder for themselves than necessary through Sergio Parisse’s sin bin and poor tactical positioning.
As the sun shone in Rome, I was conscious of the added pressure on Jackson. Better conditions bring more options and opportunity which can be a far greater burden than playing in the rain which is easier to manage. Jackson had better conditions but aligned to personnel changes he understandably didn’t grab the fixture but Madigan did and looked assured and confident.
As I opened last Friday’s article, energy is the strength and vitality required for sustained physical or mental activity. The energy levels must be on the floor today where I’m reminded somewhat of Alex Ferguson’s reaction to Luís Carlos Almeida Cunha’s (better known as Nani) sending off against Real Madrid.
Aside from the disgraceful reaction of the players and their manager to referee Cuneyt Cakir’s decision, he was completely outgunned by José Mourinho’s management of the new environment. Ireland had 23 players just like Italy but our management couldn’t get the best from them.