Irish set to heap more woe on Azzurri
February 2, 2010
Ireland's Brian O'Driscoll evades Italy's Ezio Galon during their meeting at the Stadio Flaminio in 2007 © Getty Images
Declan Kidney Diego Dominguez Warren Gatland Nick Mallett Alessandro Troncon Paul Wallace Keith Wood
Ireland are warm favourites heading into this weekend's Croke Park clash with Italy, entirely understandable given a Six Nations head-to-head record that reads: Played 10; Won 10, Points For 348, Points Against 145.
The Grand Slam champions are generally available at odds of around 1/33 with the only area of concern revolving around the issue of a formidable Italian front-row's capacity for disrupting Ireland's scrum possession. However, this Irish forward unit was more than a match for the world champion Springboks at the same venue in November and, with any sort of quality possession, Declan Kidney's backline has the ability to rip the Italians to shreds.
As they did at Lansdowne Road in 2000 in the countries' first Six Nations meeting when Ireland, then coached by Warren Gatland, scorched to a 60-13 victory. Or, in 2007 at the Stadio Flaminio when Eddie O'Sullivan's side triumphed on a 51-24 scoreline. Amid such daunting statistics, it is easy to forget the three defeats Ireland suffered to the Italians in the mid-1990s - results which cost Ireland two coaches and played a significant role in the Italians being invited to supplement the Five Nations at the end of the decade.
The first loss came in Treviso in May 1995 in what was intended as a useful warm-up for the Rugby World Cup in South Africa. Despite travelling with a team containing players of the quality of Jim Staples, Brendan Mullin, Nick Popplewell, captain Terry Kingston and Paddy Johns, Ireland were comfortably dismissed 22-12, failing to register a score in the second-half. If that one stung, the fact it was on foreign soil deflected negative attention away from the squad and coach Gerry Murphy. There was no such relief for Murphy's successor Murray Kidd who was in charge in January 1997 when the Italians turned over the Irish 37-29 at Lansdowne Road in front of disgusted crowd of 25,000.
This time, Ireland had Keith Wood as captain alongside Popplewell, Paul Wallace, Jeremy Davidson and Eric Miller, all players who had, or would go on to, represent the Lions but Massimo Cuttita and his men took Kidd's side apart. It was to be the New Zealander's last match as head coach as the vitriolic fall-out saw Kidd swiftly jettisoned for Englishman Brian Ashton who was promptly handed a six-year contract. Ashton coached (or merely sat in the stand, depending on which account you believe) England to the 2007 Rugby World Cup final but his time with Ireland was disastrous and lasted for just over a year and eight matches.
One of those games was Ireland's third loss to the Italians in two-and-a-half years, this time in Bologna with Italy again chalking up 37 points and Ashton's side managing only 22 in reply. The Irish team that day reflected Ashton's unwise disregard of home-nurtured talent, embracing the England-born Sale back-row pair of Dean Erskine and Dylan O'Grady (the bouncer who would later be convicted of drug-related offences). Ashton lasted just one more match, fleeing back across the Irish Sea complaining of shingles after the opening day defeat to Scotland less than two month's later.
Those Italian encounters summed up the unremitting awfulness of Irish rugby in the mid-1990s with Diego Dominguez their chief tormentor, amassing a remarkable 66 points over the three matches, on the end of excellent service from scrum-half Alessandro Troncon. The diminutive out-half and his trusty sidekick were the figureheads of Italian riugby at that time and played a hugely significant role in the team gaining the credibility required to gain a place at northern hemisphere rugby's top table.
Former Saracens, Bedford and Moseley winger Darragh O'Mahony played in the two defeats on Italian soil and has not forgotten the harrowing Bologna experience. "It was a time of non-stop criticism directed towards Brian Ashton and the players," said O'Mahony. "We prepared for the Italy game in London which led to savage criticism from the Irish media because Ashton was seen as an English man who favoured players based in England and had no time for the All-Ireland League.
"It's hard to play good rugby in that environment and, to be honest, it wasn't a huge shock to lose to Italy - it wasn't a vintage Irish team and Italy were decent with a tough pack and Dominguez to pull the strings and kick the goals."
Thirteen years on and we have an Ireland team of Grand Slam vintage, protecting an 11-match unbeaten run and with a realistic opportunity of winning back-to-back titles. While Ireland are unrecognisable from their mid-1990s predecessors, Italy - not helped by their difficulties gaining entry to a meaningful league competition - have not made any significant inroads on their Six Nations rivals since their debut 10 years ago.
That situation is unlikely to alter this season but, if Italy coach Nick Mallett is looking for motivational tools ahead of Saturday's encounter, he could do worse than call in Dominguez for a pep-talk or dig out the videos of three seminal victories from a time when Italian rugby was definitely going places.