Ragged, disjointed, ill-disciplined and ignominious finale for Ireland
Skies blue for Italy as they affirm their veryreal advances in Six Nations championship
Italy’s Edoardo Gori claims a high ball ahead of Ireland’s Devin Toner during the Six Nations match at Stadio Olimpico in Rome. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Date: 16 March, 2013
Venue: Stadio Olimpico
Rome effectively ground to a halt yesterday, as tens of thousands converged on the Vatican for the new Pope’s first mass. The Rome marathon also took place, which meant most roads were closed off for the majority of the day. At the end of such a truly momentous week in which even another hung parliament hardly registered, an historic first victory for their national rugby team over their Irish counterparts was not exactly the main item of St Patrick’s weekend.
Nevertheless, for the vast majority of the 74,000 in attendance for Saturday’s sun-drenched, carnival-like day at the Stadio Olimpico, this was a rousing affirmation of their very real advances and it was hard to begrudge their celebratory lap of honour to the popular Italian sing-a-long Il Cielo E’ Sempre Più Blu (The Sky is More Blue) by Rino Gaetano.
Tellingly, as their inspirational captain Sergio Parisse noted afterwards, it had felt like they were “dominant” throughout, and that this had been a more satisfactory achievement than their four-point haul of 2007, courtesy of wins over Wales and Scotland. As they also came within a score of England – now the only team they have yet to scalp – at Twickenham, this is undoubtedly the case.
This season they have played with far more ambition, with a ball-in-hand, recycling, off-loading and counter-attacking game, and they were utterly worthy of their first Six Nations win over an injury-ravaged Ireland. This campaign was also a significant shot across the bows of both Ireland and France given they are their main group opponents in the next World Cup.
In hindsight, Ireland’s campaign began to unravel even in the midst of their opening win with the stress caused by that final half-hour onslaught from the Welsh. An unjust yellow card to Rory Best contributed to those stress levels and it was certainly Ireland’s misfortune to not only suffer Romain Poite that day but, worse still, Wayne Barnes (who presided over yet another fine mess here) on two occasions subsequently.
A sodden arm wrestle with England seven days later was not what the doctor ordered, and a week on from his astonishing backheeled flick Simon Zebo’s broken metatarsal did for him, before Jonny Sexton over extended his hamstring against England.
His anticipated return had revived hope for this game and on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, the Irish backline had run with Sexton at outhalf alongside Luke Marshall, Brian O’Driscoll and Keith Earls at 12, 13 and 11. By kick-off, Jackson had replaced Sexton, with Ian Madigan drafted onto the bench, whereupon all manner of carnage struck Ireland in an eye-watering 13-minute period from the 25th minute as first Earls, then Marshall and finally the former’s replacement Luke Fitzgerald all went down.
In the midst of all that O’Driscoll even picked up the second yellow card of his career for stamping on Simone Favaro, deservedly so too. Already trailing 9-3, this meant that for two minutes of sustained pressure, the only backs Paddy Jackson had outside him were Madigan, Craig Gilroy, Rob Kearney and Peter O’Mahony, who had been pressed into service on the left wing. How Ireland survived that was in no small measure due to their collective spirit and defensive organisation.
They even responded with a second penalty on half-time by Paddy Jackson, and from 16-6 down a further trio of three-pointers by the Ulster outhalf – the third from their one sustained spell of penetrative running and recycling constituted the unchartered territory of the first points of the championship in the final quarter – exacted full punishment for Sergio Parisse’s yellow card to again fleetingly work their way back into the match.