Greater unity of purpose will be needed against France


RUGBY ANALYST:I’m quietly confident the French will bring much out of this team. My hope is it is not an individual growth but a team one.

AS THE ball flew through the air from Ronan O’Gara’s 75th-minute restart Italy had done it; their first ever victory over Ireland in the Six Nations. As that ball flew through the air I couldn’t help but feel how they would have deserved the win but I knew a team having never won would struggle to finish out. I knew too that with so many line breaks, defenders beaten and offloads Ireland didn’t deserve to lose and with O’Gara and co on board time was yet on our side.

If Italy had caught that ball and strangled the life out of it as they did for the previous 75 minutes Ireland would have lost. If they had lost I would then be benchmarking their performance on the other losers this weekend, Wales and Scotland.

Benchmarking Ireland against our Celtic cousins would be very telling. They too were out for their first run and both sides had major changes to personnel. So all three were facing similar challenges with the exception of their poor provincial/club European calibre.

Wales are a basket case of sorts and Scotland likewise but Scotland in scoring three tries over the French played rugby. How Andy Robinson is gleaning so much from a dysfunctional rugby nation is intriguing. In many facets of the match Ireland played much poorer than Scotland.

If Italy had failed to catch that flying ball as did happen then Ireland had a chance. Not unlike France in Croke Park the classier side will win out in these circumstances. Ireland did just that whether it was O’Gara or Jonny Sexton or Ian Humphreys for that matter, the drop goal would have been converted. That is now what we do and full marks to the culture within the team. Paul O’Connell’s timely return is further emphasised by Italy’s inability to field the kick-off. All through the autumn Tests Ireland struggled in this regard. O’Connell confirmed on Saturday this most difficult of skills is bread and butter to him.

In winning we can now be benchmarked against the other winners, England and France. Based on all three matches Ireland have much to do to catch up. It is some time since this Irish team functioned in both first phase and broken phase. In losing by two points Italy missed two drop goals, a conversion and a penalty (11 points). We were 100 per cent successful in our kicking. In essence we have four matches remaining in this tournament. On the evening of Saturday March 19th we will know whether we are stuck in the quagmire of Scotland, Wales and Italy or are we pushing towards France and the Southern Hemisphere.

Declan Kidney post-match praised our counter attack. I may be missing his point but when the ball bobbles unannounced into French hands their nation stands up in anticipation of the counter. I do not recall an occasion on Saturday where more than two Irish players combined and committed to the counter, electing instead for the man at the back to power forward on his own without any unity of effort.

Much will be debated over the coming days regarding our frontrow and our scrum – and much too will be focused on French man Romain Poite and his role, or lack of it, in Rome. A key question for next Sunday remains. Do we rely on the referee to change the behaviour of French loosehead Thomas Domingo or do we exert control over the hit and bind. Far too often on Saturday we were dictated to and bent out of shape.

As for team selection Saturday’s backrow forces us down a cul-de-sac. Considering the opposition Donncha O’Callaghan was hit far too often in the lineout. Our back three are brilliant runners when a gap is afforded them. Hitting O’Callaghan makes for good lineout stats but it offers nothing much to our fliers, a point compounded by the aggressive Italian midfield. Space was at a premium, not aided by our team selection. Our short lineouts got the backrow into the game but not enough was created beyond their hitting the gain line. It also brought amongst others Sergio Parisse into contact. That same Irish backrow nullified O’Connell’s influence in defence. It was far too easy for the Italians to avoid him. On the rare occasion they threw into his zone he placed huge pressure on the ball.

O’Callaghan again had a huge working display and it was needed as O’Connell understandably struggled for oxygen in the fourth quarter. Both secondrows interchanged beautifully in midfield in the opening salvos but O’Callaghan has developed a habit of arriving to the breakdown, picking the ball and driving to gain two metres. It may look good but what opportunities are being lost further out by this time-starving tactic? It’s hard to predict who will partner O’Connell next week but whoever it is should keep an eye on Nathan Hynes’ purpose around the breakdown and ball.

At half-back I’m not sure why Sexton was given but two minutes with his natural scrumhalf – Eoin Reddan. Tomás O’Leary is an interesting performer and I’m struggling to benchmark him to another elite player. Agustin Pichot, the all-action Puma scrumhalf may be similar. Pichot had the ability to engage all aspects of his team with the minimal effort. Maybe it’s lack of matches but O’Leary looks a tad disjointed from his team. He needs games, but Ireland need performances and in Peter Stringer and Reddan they have ready-made performers.

Out wide Keith Earls and Luke Fitzgerald looked very lively and with the right performance around them they will shine. Fitzgerald’s best position remains unanswered to me but he did field all balls to him and hit the line at great pace, especially in the 19th minute when he danced his feet, changing the point of attack to afford Sexton a real chance. This is when he is at his best, at the coal face running his lines. His temperament continues to cause concern, especially on whether to hit or trade space for time in defence.

So to the lesson of the weekend – if you’re fat stay in the ruck. After a reasonable Welsh phase England’s Toby Flood received the ball, looked up and spotted two Welsh fatties. He simply ran at them, off-loaded to Chris Ashton for a seven-pointer. When required, Brian O’Driscoll did likewise except he didn’t need to off-load. Incidentally, although not privy to the pre-call from that preceding scrum, I assume Sexton ran down the blindside after Earls carried excellently as a “rewind” to expose the Italian fatties post-scrum.

I’m quietly confident the French will bring much out of this team. My hope is it is not an individual growth but a team one. It’s been some time since we witnessed an Irish unity of purpose but it’s there inside them.