Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 30 July 2014

Tyrone Howe: Big questions have still to be answered in Six Nations quest

In the lead-up to Ireland’s opening 6 Nations match against Italy, it was very noticeable that there were quite a few tickets floating around.

Clearly, the general public sensed somehow that this match might best be consigned to rugby history. How right they were.

Brian O’Driscoll described it as mediocre. It could easily have been called the stuff of dreams, but only because, at times, it might have had you nodding off to sleep.

In fact, Rob Kearney did get caught napping just before halftime as he laboured over clearing another Italian kick.

I found myself begrudging Italy every single one of their 11 points, because the brutal truth is that they did not come to play.

To say that they offered little is to be kind. It was as if their players had written off the game from the start and immediately went into a strategy of damage limitation.

While I am unsure what sort of approach Ireland wanted to adopt in this match, the victory is virtually the only thing the players can take from the 80 minutes.

Ireland will know that there were aspects that worked really well. The set-piece was rock solid — the lineout was superb both in attack and particularly on opposition ball and Italian pressure at the scrum never really materialised.

However, there will be little satisfaction or back-slapping because the simple fact is that these areas were rarely, if ever, tested.

Nonetheless, Ronan O’Gara struck the ball beautifully in his place-kicking, Tomas O’Leary used his acceleration and pace to torment the Italian fringe defence and O’Driscoll, once again, reminded us of how he can still make a difference at international level. His pass which led to Jamie Heaslip’s try and kicking out of hand were exemplary.

Through Ireland’s two tries, we got a tasty reminder of what quality our players are capable of, but it left us gagging for more.

Little else was to be served up, however, as the team struggled to impose any sort of rhythm or continuity between forwards and backs.

To a large extent Italy contributed to this, by not buying into any tempo, but Ireland have to be ultra-critical about how they were unable to take this side apart.

The standards are set higher than ever these days and New Zealand or South Africa would surely have racked up at least a half century of points.

Declan Kidney knew the story from early on, which is why he had the luxury of making some substitutions with 25 minutes still to play.

He gave players a proper chance to stake a claim for next week’s match in Paris.

While Paddy Wallace made a really positive contribution in attacking the gainline and getting the backline moving, it is unlikely to see Kidney straying from an O’Gara/Sexton axis next week.

Keith Earls always looks sparky but did nothing that Andrew Trimble had not produced in his own time on the pitch.

The outhalf and wing positions will continue to have the Ireland coach thinking, but there could also be debate over one of the second row positions.

The injured Donncha O’Callaghan confessed to feeling nervous letting someone else occupy his shirt, and Leo Cullen did not disappoint.

The ‘Polar Bear’ makes a real nuisance of himself at the ruck and competes well in the air — Declan Kidney has an extra selection headache.

Nevertheless, for what could be Ireland’s most difficult assignment of the 6 Nations, I expect Ireland’s coach to go for experience with O’Gara and |O’Callaghan to be retained.

So, the 6 Nations has started more with a whimper than a bang and the big questions have still to be asked and answered. Saturday was little more than a scrappy training run and the players know that the Stade de France is the real deal.

It presents a challenge on a completely different level and their individual and collective performance will have to improve accordingly.

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