Adrian O’Farrell takes a look back at Ireland’s performance against Italy on Sunday and decides that ‘It’s Good To Talk!’
This is all going rather nicely, isn’t it? Or are you of the persuasion that the five-try victory in Rome concealed all manner of ills and that this Irish team is nowhere near where it needs to be to win the Grand Slam?
Either way, the latter question tends to conceal the real story. Isn’t it remarkable that a team that finished a distant fourth last season, on the back of World Cup in which they clung on for dear life against Georgia, is being talked about as a realistic Grand Slam winner?
Such a transformation, one would think, could only come about courtesy of a radical injection of new blood. Eh, not really.
Yes, we have had Messrs Fitzgerald and Kearney come through, but essentially it’s the same personnel that were available last season.
There has been much talk over the weekend about the benefits that have accrued to the squad from their open discussions in Enfield in December.
With weather you wouldn’t put a cat out in, they decided to sit inside and talk to each other. Brian O’Driscoll spoke about it in his post-match interview and words like ‘out on the table’ and ‘honesty’ were used.
The upshot is that the team has had a lot more input into what goes on than may have been the case previously and ‘ownership’ of the game plan.
It reminds me of the British & Irish Lions tour of South Africa under Ian McGeechan. At their pre-tour training and bonding session, McGeechan and his lieutenant Jim Telfer said to the lads, ‘Here’s a flipchart and some markers. You guys make up the rules for the tour.’
If you and your mates have decided that the curfew after a match is to be 2am and that the sanction is immediate dismissal from the tour party (for instance) then it’s very hard to argue with it when it happens.
But as importantly, you get to feel like a grown-up because you have been given responsibility.
‘It’s their gameplan and we’ll just try and mix it between ourselves, and hopefully we’ll keep improving,’ declared Declan Kidney in the aftermath of last week’s win over France.
But he also went on to say ‘I can’t overstate the work that we did at the Christmas meeting and in the last few weeks’. This has had more resonance after this week.
But did we continue to improve? I’m not sure anyone ever ‘continues to improve’ when they play Italy.
However, there was at least one similarity to last week insofar as it took us the best part of forty minutes to figure out that what we were doing was the wrong thing to do.
Whereas last week it was kicking too deep and long to a French back-three lying in wait, this week it was offering targets to fired-up Italian defenders and compounding that with attempting the speculative offload that simply fed the Italian momentum. Embroidering the pattern with cheap penalties wasn’t helping either.
But the penny had dropped by the end of the first half, as Ireland retained possession through 19 phases before Stephen Ferris built on his ever-growing reputation by blasting through the tackle and deftly offloading to the alert Fitzgerald.
That score alone signalled that Ireland were going to win the match. Bracketing half-time with David Wallace’s try, memorable for its display of his powerful leg drive and Jamie Heaslip’s slaloming break, simply confirmed it.
That the second half slipped into a twenty-minute torpor was due largely to the ongoing curse that is the scrum in the modern game.
It seems that every scrum takes three attempts before the ball finally escapes and this was another example of it.
Which is not to advocate that the scrum is de-powered, but surely there is a way to ensure that the enjoyment of everybody else’s day out isn’t a victim (some of us old props like the battle up front – Editor).
A further pleasing feature of the two matches to date has been Ireland’s ability to capitalise on their opportunities.
The two intercept tries were simply the most obvious examples of this, but the quick thinking of Fitzgerald and D’Arcy to combine for the fourth score was great to see.
So while the media exercise themselves with words like ‘disjointed’, the Irish team and management will be quietly very pleased to have come through such a bruising encounter with such an emphatic win. And much as last week, they will also be happy that there is still a lot to work on in training.
While they will want to keep the engine ticking over, the set pieces are not an area for any great concern. Once again, both scrum and lineout in particular worked extremely well.
While the scrum may not have offered the platform for Heaslip that he had against France, Ireland were never in any real trouble against the highly-reputed Italians, with Castrogiovanni in particular appearing to struggle with the referee.
Jerry Flannery gave another demonstration of the art of lineout throwing with just one crooked throw from 16, while Ireland pinched four of Italy’s 12 lineouts.
Where Ireland may spend more of their time in the two-week build-up to England at Croke Park is in the speed of recycling ball. Part of the equation is that Tomas O’Leary is having to dig it out, but it is also true that at times the ball is sitting there while O’Leary is deciding on his option.
The scrum half had a good general game yesterday but this is something that needs to be worked upon.
Elswhere, France surprisingly retreated into themselves despite their victory over Scotland, who could have enjoyed a rare treat with a bit more belief and less mistakes.
Still, the French win will have given them something to bite into in advance of the visit of Wales. This is a match that could be crucial to Ireland’s pursuit of a Championship, whatever about a Grand Slam, as France may have it in them to produce a performance to beat Wales.
However, that may be immaterial if we cannot beat an improving England in a fortnight. They showed signs of growing in belief and obduracy yesterday, even if they still have quite a distance to go.
However, they are beginning to get the benefit of Riki Flutey, whose stepping on Saturday had Wales mesmerised on a couple of occasions, and Delon Armitage. If they get their selection right (which would involve starting Flood ahead of Goode) then they have people that can hurt teams.
Let’s hope that they don’t have a good talk-in over the next couple of weeks.