Ball now firmly in Ashton's court

 

We can start by making excuses: we were missing a number of first-choice players, the half empty stadium was off-putting, the players didn't like the Italian food and, above all, the referee favoured the home side.

However, by taking this approach we are only fooling ourselves. We were well beaten by the Italians who are now entitled to a higher ranking than Ireland in the order of merit.

They were well worth their win after a game which they dominated apart from 15 minutes before half-time and five minutes after the break.

Right from the start they took the game to Ireland and we were extremely fortunate to have stayed so close to them for so long. Our scores in the first 20 minutes were all against the run of play. Apart from one exciting break by David Humphreys, we never pierced the Italian defence.

They looked far more comfortable when defending that we did in similar situations. Our best opportunity for tries came from five-yard scrums but we never turned our surprising advantage in this area into points.

Our line-out was far superior and the Italians failed to secure quite a number of their own throws. In the loose, however, we were always playing second fiddle. Both their forwards and their backs were far superior in their handling, continuity, support play and, in particular, in recycling ruckball quickly.

They looked far more organised than the Irish side and the game plan was far easier to follow. Their forwards were, apart from set-pieces, surprisingly better drilled.

The biggest difference between the two teams, however, was the ability of the Italians to accelerate on to the ball when a gap beckoned. In the northern hemisphere the French have always been the best at this skill and they have, obviously, instilled it into the Italian game through their coaching.

Irish players, on the other hand, tend to receive possession before accelerating thereby giving advantage to the defender.

Where we go from here is anybody's guess. The ball is firmly in Brian Ashton's court. He has had the team for a reasonable length of time at this stage but, I am afraid, there were very few signs of "progress" on Saturday. That applies equally to the standard of performance as it does to the result.

Defeat would have been softened by a good performance. Victory, on the other hand, would have compensated for a poor display. A comprehensive defeat, combined with a poor performance is very hard to take.

The only Irish players to emerge with enhanced reputations were, probably, Darragh O'Mahony amd Kevin Maggs. A few others did reasonably well but the majority will not be pleased with themselves. The selectors are, probably, more confused than ever after this match. The management team has quite a serious job on its hands in preparing the side for the Five Nations Championship.

It will not be long, given Saturday's result, before it will be Six Nations and the Italians would undoubtedly add flair to the competition.

Undoubtedly, the new game is causing serious problems for Irish rugby. The game has changed enormously and it is no longer rugby as we knew it. The changes have exposed our weaknesses, which we can no longer hide, while our traditional strengths are less important than they used to be.

Whether we like it or not, we will have to adapt to survive. We must accept our low standing as a rugby nation and concentrate our resources on improving the standard and style of play at all levels rather than achieving results.

When playing standards have improved nationwide and we are able to compete, then we can start worrying about the results. It will be a long road but, at least, deciding to go in that direction and making that decision public would be a brave new start.

(In an interview with Sean Kilfeather)