Ireland 29-11 Italy, Six Nations, February 6
Leaden Ireland fail to impress
Huw Baines
February 6, 2010

Ireland's title defence is off and running. Sort of. A turgid victory over an extremely limited Italian side at Croke Park was not what the doctor ordered as they look for historic back-to-back Six Nations Grand Slams and Declan Kidney's side will have to make some frank assessments as they review their performance.

Italy, perhaps unsurprisingly, also struggled to create anything of note behind the scrum and will have contributed to a few more grey hairs on the head of coach Nick Mallett, not least in the instance of centre Gonzalo Garcia's mindless sin-binning for a spear tackle on Brian O'Driscoll.

In stark contrast to Diego Dominguez and Alessandro Troncon bringing Italy into the Six Nations with a bang against Scotland 10 years ago, Mallett's side continued their slide into obscurity with a performance bereft of creativity and continuity.

Craig Gower and Tito Tebaldi toiled behind their lumpen forward pack, slinging slow, awkward ball to a clueless midfield. Ireland will be frustrated by their lack of cutting edge against dismal opposition and produced only the bare minimum to kick off their campaign.

O'Driscoll served up a couple of moments of magic, notably a deft pass to set up Jamie Heaslip for the first try of the tournament, and Tomas O'Leary started with a fire in his belly before fading in the second half as the game slowed to a molasses like crawl. With a chance to stake a claim for the remainder of the tournament fly-half Ronan O'Gara was guilty of engaging Italy in several bouts of aimless kicking, preventing any continuity and taking the bite out of a pacy Irish backline. The Munster man did bag a record though, breaking the 500 points barrier in the Six Nations.

Ireland's unbeaten run predictably survived but Kidney will be enraged by their inconsistency, with O'Leary's first-half armchair ride and quick ball disappearing in a flash as the second-half sputtered into life. Forests were pulped as the media went in pursuit of the new tackle laws but Ireland so briefly showed that positive play in clearing out and an alert scrum-half could produce front-foot ball.

During their march to the Grand Slam Ireland showed that they could grind games out with the best of them but in their pursuit of 'great' status, they must show the ability to cut apart sides like Italy, who possess neither the personnel nor gameplan to trouble them. The southern hemisphere sides may have toured poorly in November but both Australia, against Wales, and New Zealand, against France, showed their ability to pounce once there was blood in the water.

The giants of the south are warming up for their domestic kick-off in the Super 14 next weekend, and if their attention was drawn to events north of the equator then the snorts of derision will have begun in earnest for another year. The crowd whistled and jeered as Paddy Wallace lined up a penalty with 15 minutes left on the clock, not in arrogance or a desire for a Barbarian style game, but simply in hope that their side would show a willingness to play and take opportunities with more than a base level of enthusiasm. Hopefully there was no shortage of Guinness kicking around to lighten the mood.

Ireland have to win on the road at Twickenham and the Stade de France if they are to repeat last season's success and they generated no momentum with a performance lacking dynamism. Their domination of the lineout in the first half gave way to a limping gait in the second, where the Italians' indecision at the ruck proved contagious and their stagnation in the backs just as deadly.

Pre-game the focus for Italy had been on the set-piece, and Martin Castrogiovanni's date with young Cian Healy, but the dominance never arrived and their lineout was nothing short of laughable as seven went astray. Stripped of Sergio Parisse there was no class or ambition and Mallett will continue to struggle against the current in search of a victory, with Scotland looking nothing like an easy scalp this season.

With Italy offering nothing in open play and Ireland comfortable in their patterns, this was not the roaring opening that Ireland nor Six Nations apologists wanted. Slow, leaden and deadly dull, let's hope for more next week as Ireland face France in an early contender for match of the tournament.

Huw Baines is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.

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