Rugby World Cup: Ireland's errors serve as stark warning
Nervy display shows work is still needed
Italy's decade-long struggle for a competent international fly-half was comically exposed in the opening three minutes at the Olympic Stadium yesterday.
Tommaso Allan, under no pressure from the opposition defence, sliced the ball off the outside of his boot to send it out on the full, gifting Ireland possession.
That moment of madness from the 22-year-old managed to undo 11 phases of possession for Italy and handed Ireland a lineout that they scarcely deserved.
Four minutes later, despite being out-played, Ireland had three points on the scoreboard from the boot of Jonathan Sexton.
In truth, one shudders to think about how this match might have ended if Italy had a competent general at No.10. Allan, to give him some credit, was accurate from all three penalty kicks. But his lack of direction and authority in the backline was notable throughout.
Everything that Italy did well in the first-half came through their pack. They were ruthlessly aggressive in the tackle, clamping down on Irish possession and forcing errors through their commitment and ferocity in defence.
Ireland, meanwhile, looked like a team having their first outing in months. Poor passing, defensive lapses and some bizarre decision making invited Italy into the game.
This performance was an unwelcome reminder of Ireland's poor outings against Wales and England in the warm-ups.
It was as if Ireland expected to win the game without making the necessary commitment to the performance. Where was the creativity to unlock Italy's blitz defence?
The Italians are masters in the art of disruption, yet Ireland played directly to the opposition's strengths. I lost count of the number of times Irish forwards carried the ball into contact before being held up or turned over.
Sean O'Brien has developed an infuriating habit of trying to bash his way through every tackle, rather than looking for the outside shoulder and freeing his hands up.
The openside is now a marked man at Test level. Italy knew exactly what to expect and they dealt with his runs accordingly.
If O'Brien cannot vary his game beyond smash and fall, it is time to look at an alternative. Perhaps Chris Henry deserves a chance against France?
Jamie Heaslip, also largely anonymous, was completely outplayed by a man just back from injury and struggling for fitness.
If Joe Schmidt cannot find some way of reinvigorating his back-row, he can forget about beating France. Ireland's basic errors in possession were too many to count. Rory Best's fumble from a hospital pass by Heaslip in the first-half allowed Sergio Parisse to gallop down the pitch and into the Irish 22. The end result was a penalty for Italy that even Allan couldn't miss.
Keith Earls' (pictured) try aside, Ireland rarely threatened the Italian line. Every time the ball went to the backs, Italy were able to cut off the supply to the wings and snuff out the Irish threat. Tommy Bowe barely got a pass to hand.
As the match progressed, and with Italy growing to their task, Ireland froze.
And, but for Peter O'Mahony's try-saving tackle on Josh Furno in the second-half, Italy could have sneaked a win.
Perhaps this lacklustre display will quieten the euphoria that greeted Ireland's opening wins against Canada and Romania.
This was Ireland's first meaningful test and they struggled.
A welcome reality check? Or the unveiling of Ireland's true worth? We will find out next weekend.
On Saturday, England paid a high price for the failings of their manager. Two weeks ago, Stuart Lancaster took the bizarre decision to drop his best fly-half, George Ford, in favour of the bland, predictable and limited Owen Farrell. The result has been catastrophic.
The criticism of England's performances against Wales and Australia will spread across the entire team, but Lancaster must accept responsibility for picking Farrell ahead of Ford.
England were flat and predictable against Australia. The brilliance of Michael Hooper and David Pocock also served to highlight Lancaster's glaring deficiencies in the back-row.
England's best open-side flanker was twiddling his thumbs in Toulon as the Wallabies tore them to pieces.
That Steffon Armitage wasn't a part of the England squad for this tournament is an embarrassment for the head coach, and he should pay the price for the Red Rose's early exit with his job.