The day Ireland ran out of road in Rome
‘I think it was probably a realisation, a feeling that everything was coming to an end’
Ireland’s Paddy Jackson looks on dejectedly as Italy’s Sergio Parisse celebrates his side winning a late penalty in Rome in 2013. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
By kickoff the best laid plans had begun to unspool. Outhalf Paddy Jackson came in as a replacement for Johnny Sexton, and Ian Madigan had been drafted on to the bench. It was the final match of the 2013 Six Nations Championship. It was against Italy in Stadio Olimpico, and it would be the last game in charge for Grand Slam-winning Irish coach Declan Kidney.
“Everything that could go wrong did,” says Ireland’s tighthead prop Mike Ross.
Luke Fitzgerald saw it the same way, exactly the same way. “It was one of those days. I tore my ACL in it. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong.”
For the Ireland and Lions back Fitzgerald his was a personal journey of pain and fallout.
Keith Earls took a hit to the shoulder after 24 minutes, and had to leave the game. Fitzgerald went on and 12 minutes later departed with the serious knee injury that would keep him out of the game for six months.
Luke Marshall was to follow Earls with concussion on 27 minutes, before Fitzgerald’s exit nine minutes later. In a 12-minute spell an Irish centre and winger and replacement winger had all been removed from the game.
With that uncapped scrumhalf Paul Marshall was the only available three-quarter replacement. What to do. Iain Henderson was brought into the game, with Kidney opting to shift blindside flanker Peter O’Mahony to the left wing.
Already trailing 9-3 it could hardly have gotten worse. It did get worse.
The revolving backline door kept spinning as Brian O’Driscoll picked up the second yellow card of his career for stamping on Simone Favaro. For a short spell the only backs Jackson had outside him were Madigan, Craig Gilroy, Rob Kearney and O’Mahony.
“Those injuries were something I’ve never experienced before,” said Jackson afterwards. “I looked around and both Lukes were gone, Brian was in the bin and Pete O’Mahony was on the wing.”
With the benefit of hindsight a rugby cycle was spiralling towards a natural conclusion. O’Driscoll’s yellow card wasn’t the only one of the match. Donncha O’Callaghan and Conor Murray followed the Irish captain with walks to the line. Omni shambolic perfection, Ireland lost their one and only Six Nations match to Italy 22-15.
“There were lots of weird things for the team,” says Fitzgerald. “Keith Earls was off for a shoulder injury. I came on, tore my ACL. Played on for another 10 minutes. Didn’t know what it was. Then came off realising there was something wrong. My last memory was that and then six months out.
“The feeling was that the performance was really poor. The tackling from lots of guys was really, really bad. I always felt afterwards as much as myself and Deccie [Kidney] would have had differences of opinion on whether I should have been in the team or out of the team, you did feel he was very let down and that was obviously his last game in charge. I felt like we did let him down, especially in the quality of the defence.”
A report in The Irish Times at the time pointed to the lineout which was described as “a disaster”, the Irish defence was seen as “uncharacteristically fragile”, the Irish indiscipline “was rife” and the team was “comprehensively outmuscled” by the Italian pack.
That doleful account came under the headline “Ragged, disjointed, ill-disciplined and ignominious finale for Ireland.”
“In sport those days happen,” says Ross. “It’s certainly not something anyone wanted on their CV, to be the first to lose to Italy.”
Rome had waited for Ireland’s arrival as they tumbled headlong through the tournament, beginning smartly before the gravity of poor form dragged them to ground level.
The team had opened their campaign with a 22-30 win over Wales in the Millennium Stadium with tries from Simon Zebo, Cian Healy and O’Driscoll. That was followed by a 6-12 defeat to England in Dublin in a kick fest, where Ronan O’Gara landed two from three and Owen Farrell kicked four from six.
The England beating presaged defeat to Scotland, where Greig Laidlaw’s boot stroked his team to a 12-8 win in Murrayfield.
Then back in Dublin the French visit ended level with a try from Jamie Heaslip and Louis Picamoles and kicking from Jackson and Freddy Michalak leaving their sides with 13 points each.
“I think the run of results from before and losing players were a factor,” says Ross. “Players were dropping like flies. Trying to recover and then the sin bin. I think Italy smelled a bit of weakness there. They were tired of us beating them.”
Not unlike this year’s performance against England, where Ireland were physically beaten at contact and outsmarted in wide channels, so was a general lack of execution the undoing of Ireland.
“It wasn’t just one person. It was the team that played uncharacteristically badly, particularly on the defensive side, very soft, lots of missed tackles,” recalls Fitzgerald.
“I remember watching the game as a sub behind the goals, I think with Sean Cronin. The two of us were just going to look. We watched two or three guys on player cam and they missed five or six tackles in a row. It’s very hard to put it down to one thing.
“My thoughts at the time were my own [serious injury] situation post-match. When I look back, yes, I think it was that it had probably gone as far as it can go. Lots of things were uncharacteristic like Brian, who wasn’t one of the guys missing tackles. That’s for sure. I think he was frustrated about how the team was playing, and that probably played out. It was an unusual yellow card I think for shooing someone out of it.
“It was one of those days where everyone felt on the day ‘what’s going wrong here, why is it going wrong’. Looked like we really couldn’t motivate the team. Quite clearly on the day there were a few characters who weren’t putting it in, who missed lots of tackles and things.”
A try from Giovanbattista Venditti just after half time, backed up with sound kicking from Luciano Orquera, and Gonzalo Garcia outscoring Jackson’s five penalties from six attempts – and Italy had earned their only Six Nations win over Ireland.
Fallout. The IRFU couldn’t wear Ireland’s fifth-place finish and their lowest ever world ranking of nine. Kidney’s future as coach became the subject of speculation, and by April Les Kiss has been confirmed as the interim head coach for the summer tour of North America, with Gert Smal and the late Anthony Foley his assistants.
Another New Zealand coach at Leinster with a reputation and motivation to move his career up into the international sphere was waiting in the wings.
“I think it was probably a realisation, a feeling that everything was coming to an end for the coach and staff,” says Fitzgerald. “That we’d gone as far as we could with that group and coaching staff. Maybe that’s with the benefit of hindsight, but I did think it was kind of flat.
“Joe Schmidt was probably in the reckoning and doing great work with Leinster…at a point where we had this outstanding guy. Things weren’t really clicking even though there was a very strong commitment. It had probably come to a natural ending.
“I think people will look back at Deccie’s reign and say ‘well he still has the Grand Slam.’ Joe Schmidt has only just got one, so it shows you how hard they are to win. I think he can be proud of his reign but it did end on that day on a pretty sour note.”
IRELAND: R Kearney; C Gilroy, B O’Driscoll, L Marshall, K Earls; P Jackson, C Murray; C Healy, R Best, M Ross; M McCarthy, D Ryan; P O’Mahony, S O’Brien, J Heaslip.
Replacements: I Madigan for Marshall (28 mins), L Fitzgerald for Earls (24), I Henderson for Fitzgerald (36), D Toner for McCarthy (64), S Archer for Ross (67), D Kilcoyne for Healy, S Cronin for Best (both 71), P Marshall for Ryan (79).
Sin Bin: O’Driscoll (30), Ryan (68), Murray (79).