Italian job ill-conceived, ill-performed

 

Another Italian job, another 37 points conceded and so Ireland stands still? In truth this was worlds apart from the similarly inclined scoreline (37-29) of last January. Better in some respects, worse in others and all the while even more frustrating.

At its crudest, the game was there for Ireland to win and they didn't have the collective mental strength or ability to take their chances. Sooner or later, Ireland have got to start winning these games. When afforded a relative sniff of a chance, the Italians then blew Ireland away.

So it would be wrong not to admit that some progress has been made in this evolving (but, alas, ever-changing) Irish team, though at the same time the class divide seemed every bit as pronounced at the end. In the last three meetings between the countries, Italy have outscored Ireland by eight tries to two.

However, statistics can tell lies and 11 months on, it was a radically different approach from a radically different Irish team.

It would have seemed even more radically progressive were it not for the concerto being blown by the fastidious Didier Mene, who probably gave one of the worst examples of modern-day refereeing likely to be seen all season. His touch judges weren't much better, one of the most accurate touch kicks of David Humphreys's career being adjudged to have gone dead, and Niall Hogan being penalised for not retreating 10 metres when he'd actually retreated 12. They were hopeless.

There may well have been a good Irish performance waiting to break out, and a good Italian one and a good game to match. But thanks to Mene, by the time the exchanges were released from his shackles (24 penalties in the first half, another 20 in the second), Italy blew Ireland out the gate by capitalising upon three turnovers from an increasingly panicky Irish team to deliver a three-try salvo in nine minutes.

It was like a scene from the bad old days in Parc des Princes, like a step back in time, yet it had nothing to do with physical fitness (there was still time for a consolation riposte with Eric Elwood's `Connacht' try for Darragh O'Mahony) but everything to do with a collective mental failing.

Irish coach Brian Ashton later conceded that Ireland began playing catch-up rugby when only three points behind. The blindside move which preceded the pivotal Dominguez try from inside halfway lacked for space and numbers. Playing for territory seemed a better ploy at that stage.

Panic intensified as two more moves in midfield broke down, Reggie Corrigan knocking on Elwood's short pass, and then a laboured move and loop going to ground behind the gain line with the pack unable to recycle the ball.

Twice the Italians plundered tries without the ball going dead. Dominguez floated out a beauty of a double skip pass for Stoica to release the impressive debutant Pilat, and the rapidly laid off ruck ball (highlighting how much Niall Hogan had to excavate for it) enabled Troncon to put Dominguez over.

The unexpectedly early popped release to Troncon off the Italians' superior rolling maul gave Troncon the space to send Stoica over.

During that spell Italy clearly wanted the win more and were more clinical about it. A manifestation of their intentions came with the `taking out' of Humphreys and Keith Wood which, not coincidentally, preceded the 19-point salvo.

Yet during key spells before and after the interval, the game was also there for Ireland. Twice the superior Irish scrum had the Italians on the brink of conceding a penalty or a pushover try. First Eric Miller picked up and drove to the open-side of a scrum that, if anything, tweaked the wrong way, and on the second occasion Miller seemed to lose control of the ball as the Italian scrum back-pedalled.

The unfortunate Miller was inconsolable after the game, and still disconsolate yesterday morning. We've seen his brilliance during the summer for the Lions - he's due a brilliant game for the Irish. He probably knows it and is thus probably pushing for it too much.

Individually, Miller had some good moments, especially the chip and one-handed catch of a bouncing ball which had the Irish forwards in a quick supporting line and would have led to a try but for Corrado Pilat's deliberate knock-on of Malcolm O'Kelly's pass.

However, both individually and as a unit the back-row were obliterated. Poor Dylan O'Grady, who ideally would have been used as a number six, looked like so many forlorn Irish open-sides thrown into the lion's den.

Though Ireland's outstanding defender of the season, Mark McCall, again shored up midfield, a significant weakness was the defending in the corridor inside Humphreys. Diego Dominguez, every inch one of the world's best out-halves, played right-winger Paolo Vaccari as either a decoy or knife-through-butter runner with unerring accuracy. The classy out-half is surely a brilliant poker player.

First Vaccari came off his wing and sliced through. The second time he showed the ball to his right winger; and then as Humphreys and David Erskine froze, Dominguez sprinted through the gap. Invariably he called it right thereafter.

There were warnings of this in the match against Canada when Gareth Rees used his right-winger coming off his line to similar effect. In the second half, Humphreys stood up to Dominguez, who then popped the ball inside to Vaccari. He went through a yawning gap; the nearest inside defenders being O'Kelly and Paddy Johns. There wasn't a back-rower in sight.

This is an aspect of Ireland's defensive organisation that has to be worked on. Humphreys was clearly targeted as a defensive weakness and for some rough treatment. However, he picked himself up from an early late tackle to land his first of four penalties (from five kicks), and defended better than previous performances would have indicated - though he will never be another Elwood.

Then again, the ball seemed to perceptibly shift through the hands quicker when Humphreys was there. The feint to Dennis Hickie and dart past Dominguez after 27 minutes saw the biter being bit gloriously, and the daring long flat pass to Kevin Maggs which followed may well have been a try were O'Mahony not several yards behind.

But that was endemic of this Irish display. The set-pieces were good - Ireland took three of Orlandi's dodgy throws in the first half and won all 13 off their own ball.

The lack of continuity was down to a combination of factors: referee Mene, a spoiling Italian pack whose coach Georges Coste had clearly done his homework on Mene, and slow ruck ball.

This may have been a factor in Irish forwards over-committing themselves to rucks. There weren't enough runners supplementing the back-line. Thus even one of the few shining lights in the pack, Malcolm O'Kelly, still didn't get enough of the ball in his hand.

Paul Wallace's dynamism was missed - interestingly Massimo Cuttitta later revealed than Wallace is also the more awkward scrummager. The back-row will have to be changed again and the reconstruction will thus carry on.

An ill-conceived, ill-performed fixture ultimately.