O’Driscoll all set for Championship finale
Tries fly in as flagging Italy collapse and crowd can fete man of the moment early
Andrew Trimble goes over for Ireland’s second try against Italy in their Six Nations Championship game at the Aviva Stadium, set up by Brian O’Driscoll. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
This game was, essentially, about two things. One was Ireland strengthening their hold atop the Six Nations table so that a win by any margin in Stade de France next Saturday will secure the title; the second to ensure a proper degree of celebration for you know who’s 70th and farewell home Test. Both boxes were ticked.
Indeed, so too were a few more, with Brian O’Driscoll amongst eight frontliners who were withdrawn from the fray to ensure as much energy levels as possible for the finale.
What’s more, the replacements, clearly primed for an earlier contribution than normal, finished off this Italian job in style, as three of them contributed tries in the 19-point haul over the last 12 minutes.
As John Plumtree had foretold, the additional emotional energy attached to O’Driscoll’s final home Test was good for the game and for the Irish performance. O’Driscoll may not have scored, but provided the scoring pass for both of Ireland’s first-half tries and was creator in chief of the fourth.
O’Driscoll’s landmark day also invested his team-mates with the kind of work ethic and purpose now already a trademark of the Joe Schmidt era. They might not be thrillseekers or frill seekers, as he put it, but they are, he added, hard workers, and he loves that.
It was no surprise to hear Schmidt single out Dave Kearney’s ferocious clear-out which prevented a turnover, ensured a recycle and led to Cian Healy’s 53rd-minute try.
“That’s the glue that holds a team together,” enthused the coach, and that is also the kind of work-rate Simon Zebo or any other prospective Irish winger will have to emulate if they are to break into this Irish team.
As a result, Ireland enjoyed 75 per cent of the possession – remarkable against the Azzurri – as the quality of their set-piece game was augmented by their recycling of the ball.
The immediate post-match stats credited them with 154 rucks and mauls won, with only three lost, as carriers and support players never stopped working on the ground. Such was their discipline, the penalty count was 10-2 in Ireland’s favour and, it has to be said, Nigel Owens was the ideal referee for the occasion.
It was a wild and whacky game, unlike anything you’ve ever associated with a Six Nations match involving Italy. Not surprisingly, Ireland threw down the gauntlet by opting for the kind of high tempo game they showed against the All Blacks, keeping the ball in hand, varying the points of attack, applying width and working assiduously to recycle the ball.
But Italy worked equally hard to regroup, push up hard and make their tackles and what’s more, accepted the challenge by running back at Ireland whenever the home side were forced to cough up possession.
Ireland looked particularly vulnerable off turnovers, no matter where on the pitch, to the Italians’ willingness to run such possession – as they showed when beating France last season. Their equalising try by Lorenzo Sarto, if benefitting slightly from a lucky bounce, was the very least their approach deserved.
Unfortunately for them, they lost their scrummaging bulwark Martin Castrogiovanni early on, and thereafter the tighthead side of their scrum struggled under pressure from Cian Healy and co. Devin Toner and Paul O’Connell also went after the Leonardo Ghiraldini throw to good effect, and at one point in the first quarter Ireland took one scrum against the head and two Italian throws.
The net effect of Ireland’s set-piece supremacy was Italy had no real access to the game, obliging them to live off scraps, and although they fed of these voraciously, it added to their defensive workload. Thus, it may have taken a while but the dominant team’s supremacy was rewarded by three tries in the final dozen minutes.
Johnny Sexton, full of running from the off, would have been a viable contender for Man of the Match on any other day and worked his Leinster loop to continually telling effect.
This provided the breakthrough off a scrum as O’Driscoll’s soft hands freed him through the Italian centres.
Once again O’Driscoll was almost single-handedly responsible, in every sense, for Ireland’s offloading game with his array of tricks, and the killer second try in the 38th minute typified his and Ireland’s approach.
Eoin Reddan tapped a penalty on his own 22 which Chris Henry had earned at the breakdown, with Sexton, Gordon D’Arcy, O’Driscoll and Rob Kearney alive to the threat as they carried the ball over 60 metres.
The great man
A full 20 phases and almost three minutes later in a breathlessly exhausting half – O’Driscoll having won the ball back from a turnover – the great man took out four defenders when working a decoy switch with Sexton and flipping the ball to Andrew Trimble, who danced past two tacklers for a fully deserved try.
Healy having barrelled over for Ireland’s third try, the biggest cheer of the day was for O’Driscoll rejoining the fray after treatment in the 59th minute as the big screens flashed up images of an onlooking Amy.
Cometh the hour, the great one conjured another piece of magic with a looping one-handed offload out of the tackle into the path of Rob Kearney, who found his brother who in turn passed inside for Sexton to score his second try.
Before the restart, everyone rose to applaud him off. It was emotional, although the man himself was cooler about it all than anyone, and was followed by huge cheers when the big screen flashed pictures of a beaming O’Driscoll 10 minutes from time.
The day was probably dominated more by his presence than he would have liked. Yet he, his team-mates and management alike will have been grateful that by that time the Aviva could become a little indulgent by dint of Ireland having established a winning position.