Ireland 42-10 Italy, Six Nations
Searching for that missing component
February 25, 2012
Gordon D'Arcy was one of the few to make a clean break for Ireland against Italy in the first-half © Getty Images
The history books will show a fairly conclusive 42-10 home victory over Italy but question marks still surround this Ireland side. They laboured in the first-half with a lack of direction on the field and it took Eoin Reddan's introduction after 53 minutes to finally guide the rest of the side into the right areas of the field.
It was the same old Italy side on show, buckets of character, Sergio Parisse imperious, but a lack of class in the backs to build on all the efforts of the forwards. While Italy may be searching for that extra spark of inspiration, Ireland boss Declan Kidney is also still struggling to bring out the best of this current side.
For the vast majority of the opening 40 minutes, Ireland played like a rabbit in the headlights. Void of guidance at scrum-half, there seemed to be a vast chasm between forwards and backs.
Reddan's introduction at last had Ireland going in the right direction as he capitalised on his Leinster bond with Jonathan Sexton at fly-half and Gordon D'Arcy at inside-centre. The forwards were ticking over in their usual rumbustuous manner, with Stephen Ferris a constant irritating presence and the Irish front-row enjoying themselves against the Martin Castrogiovanni-less Azzurri, with Paul O'Connell providing grunt in the engine room.
In the final half hour, Ireland dominanted possession - much of it in Italy's half - and restricted the visitors to scant territory as they closed out the match thanks to Tommy Bowe's second and scores from Tom Court and Andrew Trimble.
But prior to the game-changing injection provided by Reddan, Conor Murray laboured at half-back. Munster clearly have huge faith in the young scrum-half, with Peter Stringer living out of a suitcase in England constantly on the move in the Aviva Premiership and Tomas O'Leary on the verge of a switch to France. Murray must learn to order around the Leinster contingent at No.8, fly-half and inside-centre.
Far too often in the first-half Ireland were guilty of trying to play rugby out of their 22 when either Murray or Sexton were required to take charge of the situation and clear far and away behind the Azzurri's line. Their two tries came from clinical play which will hearten Kidney, but while there were moments of staccato, Rob Kearney and Bowe provided pure legato.
Fullback Kearney is clearly back to somewhere near his best with his contribution incorporating turnovers, breaks, offloads and try-scoring passes. Despite Sexton's tendency to play rugby in his own 40, the fly-half's 17 points put Italy on the back foot and kept his side's noses in front.
The same, however, could not be said for Tobias Botes. Italy's outside-half was woeful from the tee for the second Six Nations match running. Yes, he can put them on the front foot with accurate flat passing and the odd nudge, but he's singing from a different hymn sheet. Brunel has already set out his stall pre-Six Nations concerning the new Azzurri he wants to see with the backs living up to the high standards of the forwards, but for all of Botes' efforts to create space behind Ireland's defensive line, the home side were never under pressure.
Italy's forwards performed well, with that man Parisse setting out his stall with an early hand-off of Heaslip, but they look unsure around the breakdown when they take the ball in and the wingers look more surprised than driven when they receive the ball in space. Tommaso Benvenuti looks secure at outside-centre but Alberto Sgarbi laboured inside him with Gonzalo Canale champing at the bit on the sidelines.
Ireland now travel to the Stade de France next weekend and they Kidney must determine whether his side are suffering from rustiness or a lack of intensity. If it is the first then Ireland should be competitive against France, but if it is the latter, then Les Bleus will put Kidney's side to the sword. And for Italy, it is a similar post-mortem. They need to pluck a fly-half capable of kicking place kicks and sticking his forwards in the right place if they are to be competitive against Wales next weekend. Character is not enough to make up for a lack of execution and nous - Brunel will be mindful of this.
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Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.