Belfast Telegraph

Friday 31 October 2014

Tyrone Howe: Irish gladiators show mettle for title assault

Just in case you are in any doubt, I can confirm that the Six Nations match last Sunday between Ireland and Italy did, indeed, take place in the Stadio Flaminio.

The reason I give this reassurance is that some might have thought that they had taken a wrong turn or pressed the wrong button and ended up at the Colosseum, such was the violent gladiatorial nature of the contest.

Paradoxes don’t come any more powerful than combining a St Valentine’s weekend in Rome with a fixture between these two teams.

There was absolutely no love lost, particularly in the opening forty minutes.

The Colosseum was built circa 78AD and was so called, as next to it was thought to have stood the Colossus of Nero, an enormous statue of the former Emperor of Rome.

Having done a bit of homework on the subject, in short, I can tell you this. Basically, Nero was a complete nutcase. What is even more remarkable is that almost two thousand years on he seems to have been reincarnated as an Italian rugby international.

Rather than Nero, he now appears to go by the name of Marco and takes the form of Italian prop Marco Castrogiavanni.

From the start, the bearded wildman was out of control and made a point of spoiling, disrupting and infringing virtually everything that came near him.

If ever a player was crying out to be sent to the sinbin, it was the crazed prop and if referee, Chris White, had used his yellow card on him early in the game, then it might not only have solved a few problems but also saved a lot of precious time wasted trying to settle the scrum.

It wouldn’t surprise me if Castrogiavanni plays a mean fiddle as well.It was a mixed performance from the Irish but an achievement, nonetheless, to come away with such a solid victory.

The lack of intensity and composure at the start I put down to two main factors.

Firstly, there had been so much Grand Slam hype in the aftermath of the victory over France, that it would have been difficult not to get carried away and look a little bit too far ahead.

The rest of us are allowed to do that and, for the players, that is the pressure that comes with a rugby history that can claim only one Irish Grand Slam to date.

Certainly, one of Declan Kidney and BOD’s biggest tasks will be to minimise the extent to which our speculation and emotion infiltrate the squad’s ‘one game at a time’ mentality. Add to that the Italian welcome and it was always going to be a tough opening quarter.

You know what to expect from the Azzurri, but as much as you try to prepare yourself, the reality still comes as a real shock.

The physicality can at times be overwhelming and this was epitomised by the yellow card high tackle in the first minute by Italian centre Andrea Masi on Rob Kearney.

However, you have to weather the storm, survive and then apply your own pressure and inevitably you come out the other side looking down at the opposition from a winning position. This was Ireland’s greatest achievement –they fought their corner, kept their defensive line intact and backed themselves that eventually the breaks would come, and so they did.

None more so than Tommy Bowe, whose magnificent individual effort temporarily took the sting out of the Italian assault.

However, more than anything else, it was the sustained effort in the five minutes before the interval that did the real damage. Thwarted time and time again by a sterling and resolute blue wall, Ireland’s patience to retain possession and keep pounding away eventually paid off. Of course, who else but that horse of a man, Stephen Ferris, blasted through and crucially got the offload away to send Luke Fitzgerald in for the first of his two scores.

For all their efforts, taking a look at the scoreboard as they left the pitch at halftime must have been absolutely soul-destroying for the Italian players. It was not a game for the purists, but sometimes you have to dig deep and simply win ugly. With the way that Italy approached the game, it would have been impossible to win in a particularly stylish fashion.

Nevertheless, if you had given Declan Kidney the choice of a 38.9 victory before the game, I have no doubt that he would have taken it. It was a professional job and to that end, it was a job well done.

We should take pride in the victory that the Irish players achieved under the most difficult of conditions.

If our own gladiators in green can keep up the momentum, one game at a time, they could put themselves into a position whereby a visit to Cardiff will have history beckoning. Then we might finally have the chance to salute our modern-day equivalents of those pin-ups of the classical age.

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