Sweet victory for Irish rugby yet still so much to work on
More formidable opposition lie in wait but there is room for postive improvement
Ireland’s Jonathan Sexton goes over for the try against Italy in the Aviva Stadium in Dublin on Saturday. Photograph: Colm O’Neill/Inpho
On 59 minutes eight seconds the maestro struck once more as Johnny Sexton released the ball to Brian O’Driscoll. This time O’Driscoll was at first centre with his old war horse Gordon D’Arcy outside him. Like the Sexton try on six minutes, D’Arcy ran the perfect line to suck Gonzalo Garcia momentarily out of position as O’Driscoll crossed the Italian 22.
The beauty of the above try was the contrast from Twickenham. Granted England were far more combative at the breakdown and in defence, where after similar phases leading to Sexton’s second try Ireland had run out of attacking players. This time as Sexton released there were seven Italian defenders and nine Irish attackers. A nine-on-seven overlap is rarely converted such is the degree of difficulty when facing organised defences. And to Italy’s credit, score board aside, they were extremely organised throughout.
Hence it still takes magic and that O’Driscoll had shown for both Sexton and Andrew Trimble’s tries was beautiful but suspending time is a unique ability amongst the class.
This time Italian hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini placed O’Driscoll in a vice grip right on the 22. I’ve mentioned ad nauseam this season yards-after contact, which is an American football stat continuously captured.
Seán O’Brien has his way which creates carnage. O’Driscoll can do that too but his subtlety in slowing time, powering through the tackle, hunting for a green shirt and deciding what option is best before finally executing is sublime. To repeat that combination of skills for 140 Tests when all around are tearing you apart is truly remarkable.
Sexton was to play a far greater role than touching down both tries. Where in Twickenham he faded slightly from commanding the fixture at crucial times in the Aviva he grabbed it by the scruff of the neck. The timing and execution of the plays were very impressive but that Sexton remained alive for both is what I find most gratifying.
Clearly the first wrap around is a pre-planned move but hunting to get to the far corner for Dave Kearney’s inside pass is all about hunger and motivation. This will not be lost on his flagging team-mates who would be energised by the sight of their outhalf hunting on the hour mark.
Ireland got from the game what they wished and more. I had hinted on Friday at a 30ish point victory so 39 points was very pleasant. That it came with seven tries was great but that it also came with its lower points is even better. A 39-point victory and yet there is still so much to work on.
Italy impressed me in their lineout maul defence and their dogged defence in general that took the brilliance of O’Driscoll to unlock. Their breakdown conceded far too much but it was more engaging than previous weeks where Italian openside Paul Derbyshire worked tirelessly.
However Italy battled throughout without the ball or field position, a scrum that was demolished and a lineout that malfunctioned. And they managed to beat 14 Irish defenders with 4 clean breaks.
The greatest lesson I gleaned from the Italians was their hunger to offload where they equalled ours with 9 each (off 25 per cent possession).
Ignoring the scoreboard the above numbers are intriguing/alarming and will provide enormous focus from the coaching ticket who will no doubt find them unacceptable, especially with Paris in mind.
The great news is with such a brilliant win the management will be delivering a positive message of improvement required to a confident dressing room. This is the best time to get another 20 per cent from the team.
Ireland crossed the Italian line four times in the first half but only scored two tries. Errors possibly built on over exuberance or white-line fever were extremely costly.
Of course Ireland were patient and remained positive during this spell but the precision will be focused on for major improvements. On 23 minutes Trimble powered off a Rob Kearney counter attack but spilled whilst taking into contact. Moments later Trimble smashed Derbyshire before left winger Leonardo Sarto was allowed to slide along the left hand touch line.
That passage of play will give all concerned nightmares but for me the spill in contact was the real error. Others were guilty of coughing up possession far too cheaply. Chris Henry was ripped by right wing Angelo Esposito. But in all cases Ireland’s most impressive characteristic was their ability to remain calm and regain focus even when all was not working perfectly. Esposito, for instance, lost the ball to Rhys Ruddock on the very next ruck and Seán Cronin scampered over for Ireland’s sixth try.
The Irish bench once again sparkled as the starting players flagged. So too the scrum, where the lively Eoin Reddan noticing his opposite man Tito Tebaldi sliding onto the openside exploited with a cracking run, more please. Rob Kearney’s 135 metres carried were miles ahead, much from deep which is a powerful weapon. Adding a fluid team counter attack would add real value to these runs. Sexton and Dave Kearney had a lovely interplay on the left hand touchline which both countered and kept the ball alive.
What a day it was for O’Driscoll but the French have a very different maestro that comes in the shape of 6’ 7” almost 18 stone secondrow Yoann Maestri.