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The Italian Job and The French Connection II

The Italian Job and The French Connection II

Our regular pundit and Irish Rugby TV commentator Adrian O’Farrell takes a look at the recent Italian Job and previews the French Connection II.

When Ireland beat Italy 36-6 in Dunedin in last year’s Rugby World Cup the performance was interpreted as copper fastening the impression generated through the win over Australia.

Ireland had arrived at a higher level, scoring three tries in the process and dominating from the outset. This was a fairly complete performance against an Italian side that had designs on the W.

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So what are we to make then of Saturday’s 32-point, five try victory over the same opposition? Presumably Ireland are considered right back up there? Well……

From the paying pundit’s viewpoint Saturday was about as good as it gets against Italy.

The general media view has been that Ireland played too much rugby in their own half in that first half. And this is true. But the real question is why? While some have applauded the ambition, generally Jonny Sexton has taken some criticism for this.

However, the real problem lay in the execution rather than the decision. Ireland were unable to retain possession when they went wide in that first half.

Whether it was Andrew Trimble coming short onto a ball, being hit ball and man and knocking on, or Rob Kearney and Sexton getting their wires crossed resulting in Sexton having to make an excellent try saving tackle from behind on Sgarbi, little things were going wrong when Ireland moved the ball wide, resulting in turnovers and pressure on the Ireland defence. But let’s recognise that as the problem rather than necessarily the decision to go wide in the first place.

Allied to that was that when kicking out of defence we kicked too long quite often, not giving the chasers the opportunity to contest. When we did, the Italians contested quite well. All of which meant that we were again putting ourselves under pressure.

The problems were compounded with difficulties at scrum time where we were under pressure against the new look Italian front row in which Rizzo did well. And finally, we were falling foul of referee Craig Joubert’s interpretation of ‘sealing off’ which appeared to have fallen off the refereeing radar to a fair degree before Saturday.

On one occasion, Gordon D’Arcy looked utterly puzzled as Joubert found against him. He was on his feet, but arguably wasn’t supporting his own weight – a decision that fell into the ‘speck’ rather than ‘log’ category.

Taken together, the wonder was that we were in such good nick on the scoreboard at half-time. But there were some positives in there as well. When we did put ourselves in position we retained possession well and showed calm close to the line.

We put a pace on the game that the Italians couldn’t live with (in the second half this was to be the key feature that allowed us to sprint clear), Kearney ran well with legs pumping like pistons, Paul O’Connell was in fine form, the lineout was pretty good (the turnover that led to the Italian try should have been a penalty to Ireland for closing the gap against Parisse on O’Connell – it was actually a good throw by Rory Best).

True, Conor Murray looked slower than usual and Eoin Reddan picked up the pace dramatically. There was one moment in particular that the former will not enjoy in the video session when, with the ball available at the base of the ruck, he looks up to scan both directions and as he does so, the delay allows Italy to counter ruck and drive over the ball to win a turnover.

Reddan’s immediate instinct to pass and ability to be there as the ball is presented may not however ensure he starts against France, even if he deserves to. I would expect Murray to start but under instruction to move the ball quicker.

D’Arcy picked up his game dramatically. His line break was good to see, but he did an awful lot of good tidying up work as well in an excellent all-round display that included some good distribution.

When Ireland patched up the fault lines from the first half, Italy found them unstoppable. The fact each of these areas was picked up on and rectified in the heat of a Six Nations match was impressive, so the coaching ticket deserves acknowledgement of this too.

A further change in this match was the wider use of the back row – Stephen Ferris in particular – than usual. Where they normally take the ball off the scrum or outhalf, they were now loitering in or around the 13 channel. This meant that they had a bit more space to do damage and that the Italian pack was getting moved around more, contributing to their second half collapse. Good to see.

So we definitely look at the French Connection II in better shape than originally. But the match throws up the age-old question of how to go about Ireland’s least favourite fixture. Which goes to the heart of the aforementioned Murray v Reddan decision.

To pick Reddan only makes sense if we want to attack them wide and play a high tempo game. But playing a high tempo game against France in Paris in the Springtime is one of those ideas that generally brings Irish people out in a cold sweat.

However, think about the alternative for a moment. Does it make a lot of sense to play a structured, tight, set piece based game against a pack that has a massive back row in Picamoles and Harinorduquy and are fearsome in the scrum (their brutalisation of Scotland in this area on Sunday was frightening) and have a dependable lineout. If Ireland were to play with width and pace then it will leave Dusautoir with an awful lot to do.

Scotland showed however, that if you run at France they can be vulnerable. If they can do it, then we should be more than capable. Kidney is depicted as a conservative coach. But he is also an intelligent and brave one when he needs to be so I wouldn’t rule this option out.

However, as mentioned above, I believe he will start Murray as he will be conscious of the French backrow around the fringes. But he may adopt a wide game and use Reddan off the bench again to pick up the pace still further.

Success is not the result of spontaneous combustion. You must set yourself on fire. Ireland need to do this on Sunday.