Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 29 November 2014

Six Nations: Italians are no stallions

If anyone still doubts the seriousness of the problems confronting Six Nations rugby, the definitive case was presented at Croke Park on Saturday.

Italy were woefully uncompetitive and a route simply has to be found to get Italian rugby into the Magners League.

Here you had an extremely limited Italy team playing to the edge of its extremely limited ability with the end product a level of entertainment that will have fans voting with their feet if it continues.

Rugby may be cool right now and some of the public can be fooled some of the time but alarm bells should be ringing in high places. Despite a 77,686 turn-out, the key ingredients — entertainment and uncertainty (as to the result) — are always missing when it is the Azzurri in opposition.

The fault doesn't lie with head coach Nick Mallett either. With the players he has at his disposal, he has to set out to negate the opposition, but when static ruck ball becomes an achievement of sorts, then we've got problems.

Of course criticism should be levelled at Ireland for the inability to make better use of whatever possession (quality as distinct from quantity) that did come our way, but much like their football counterparts, when the Italians set out to frustrate the opposition and prevent them playing, few do it better.

And that sadly was the bottom line. One team clad in blue determined to play snail's pace rugby, where monotonous control at the breakdown is king; the other in green wanting but being unable to present sufficient fluid possession to set a more potent back line free. It is hard to be critical of a team that plays to its obvious, if limited, strengths but the ramifications for a professional sport in these tough financial times are ominous. Rugby's got a problem Houston, and on Saturday it was magnified to the Nth degree. The Italians' negativity should not detract from what was a winning but listless Irish performance. If the first half was reasonably clinical and quite professional, the second was anything but. In the third quarter in particular, Ireland's desire and tempo dropped alarmingly.

On the plus side, the set-piece — scrum and line-out — was as good as anything Gert Smal could have expected. Leo Cullen made the desired impact and his no-nonsense contribution has certainly put it up to Declan Kidney for Saturday.

Cian Healy too had a confidence-boosting set-piece run and has surely copper-fastened the loose-head slot for Paris. Kevin McLaughlin will have benefited immensely from the experience but, if fit, then Stephen Ferris's return is writ in stone. The decision at out-half I will leave with Kidney. He is much closer to the action and we have to trust his call. Ronan O'Gara slotted back in seamlessly, his control and goal-kicking top notch. Like Cullen, his case for re-selection is strong.

As ever, Brian O'Driscoll was the best of the backs. The one real individual concern, and it is a concern not to be dismissed lightly, was the performance of Rob Kearney. I am a member of the fan club but his display was lacklustre in the extreme and far removed from the levels of concentration we take for granted in the last line.

If you are only as good as your ||last game, then the full-back, who normally provides such solid inspiration and confidence from the back, has much to make up in Saint Denis. Kidney will keep it sensible. We didn't become a bad team on the back of one limp effort.

Paris will be a more accurate measure of our current status. At least the result won't be a foregone conclusion.

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