Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 21 September 2014

Peter Bills: O’Driscoll can’t mask flat feeling

No wonder Brian O’Driscoll has decreed his wedding celebrations will last the best part of four days.

He’s going to need that long and more to open all the presents left for him by Ireland’s grateful rugby fans after another exceptional act by their captain, yesterday.

You could say that O’Driscoll’s 79th minute try represented a jailbreak of Mountjoy proportions for his team. For so long in this match, Ireland were a tame disappointment, the crown of 6 Nations Grand Slam champions already looking dull and tarnished.

Their display, some crucial moments excepted, mirrored the match; surprisingly flat and lethargic. Of the three matches I attended over a busy rugby weekend, in Toulouse, Milan and Dublin, for the most part this was by some distance the flattest. Was that because it was played on a Sunday? Who knows...

But where the French had shown great fire to master the much vaunted Springbok pack and the Italians wonderful brio, especially in the scrummage, to push the New Zealanders so hard at the San Siro, this match looked for too long like a soufflé that had failed to rise. What we were left with was a mess.

If the Australians felt robbed at the end, as I’m sure they did, I’d make just this point. There weren’t too many reminders from them of the wonders of Ella, Campese and Farr-Jones a quarter of a century earlier. They had a wonderful attacking platform of scrum and breakdown where, apart from very late on, they were infinitely superior. Yet they failed to make it count, proof I suspect that they remain at best a side of strictly limited abilities as their results in the southern hemisphere this year would suggest.

But if that is so, where does it leave Ireland in the grand scheme of things? Mighty relieved, for a start, to scrape a draw from a match they should comfortably have lost. Ultimately, all it took to share the spoils was one sudden burst of inspiration around the hour, culminating in Tommy Bowe’s try, and a stirring late rally which reaped a surprising reward.

Those few moments apart, Ireland were poor and largely ineffective.

Cian Healy gave an exceptional performance in broken play but struggled in the set scrums, not least because John Hayes on the tight head was again cruelly exposed.

Trying to play this game with a scrum as weak as Ireland’s is exceedingly difficult. A better side must have extracted a heavy toll for that failing alone.

So despite the sea of green flags and excited shouts from the stadium announcer, the closest we got to serious animation from the home side for much of the game was the singing of their anthem. It was strange, a point picked up by the crowd which was curiously quiet for long periods.

It wasn’t that Ireland weren’t trying, weren’t professional or organised. But they just seemed strangely tepid for too long, unable to unleash the spirits that have always hallmarked Irish rugby teams.

Like the cigarette lighter out of juice, they couldn’t find the spark to ignite. Perversely, it took Matt Giteau’s second penalty goal, in the 53rd minute, to achieve that.

At 6-13 down, Ireland suddenly seemed affronted, stung into meaningful activity by the earlier poverty of their own game. Not for the first time, Healy set up the situation with a great burst into the Australian 22 and after he’d been held up near the line in the same movement by Rocky Elsom, Bowe finally found a way over.

From then until the last final act, once more the ghost of Irish rugby’s past disappointments threatened to undermine their global ambitions with the World Cup now less than two years away. Magical, inspirational one moment; flat, predictable and leaden-footed the next, Ireland have known too many past setbacks to be overly optimistic now in the wake of a Grand Slam success.

Yesterday proved their wisdom in showing caution in such matters. For a start, the Wallabies are only modest foes at this time and for another reason, South Africa loom here in a fortnight. They may have lost to the French on Friday night but they’re a better outfit than the Australians. Ireland’s uneven performance yesterday would not have got them within cooee of the world champions.

Declan Kidney will have been offered much food for thought yesterday, not least the fact that for too long Ireland provided nothing to stir the pulses. Inevitable rustiness at the start of a long international season? Time will tell but Ireland has to hope that was the case.

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