Barbarians tear up Irish script
Barbarians 29 Ireland 28: After the sunshine and celebration of the past two weeks, New Zealand waits ominously for Irish rugby's finest like a long, black cloud, promising short cold days and relentless weekend examinations by the world champions.
Ireland needed a morale-booster before flying out to face the All Blacks — and this was not quite it.
One can never read too much into encounters between two scratch sides with little preparation time and comparisons with the Heineken Cup champions are unfair for this reason, but this Leinster-less Ireland effort was lacking in invention and execution and defeat followed on.
The upsides were an excellent showing by two-try Craig Gilroy, outplaying Simon Zebo, who has his place on the plane, a solid showing by hooker Mike Sherry in loose and tight to banish memories of his troubles against the Ospreys, excellent kicking by Ronan O'Gara and a typically combative effort from Peter O'Mahony.
Not enough to secure victory, though, with Felipe Contepomi breaking with a tradition to kick the winning penalty which gave Barbarians captain Mick O'Driscoll a nice end to a fine career.
A crowd of nearly 12,000 turned out in glorious Gloucester sunshine and after impeccably observing a minute's silence for departed Cherry and Whites legend John Brain, settled down to watch some loose, flowing rugby.
However, it was the tight stuff that proved most relevant from an Irish point of view. With Tom Court out and Mike Ross carrying a knock, Ireland coach Declan Kidney needed a strong showing from his props Brett Wilkinson and Declan Fitzpatrick, but the Barbarians scrum, spearheaded by Ulster's John Afoa (one of the overseas props complicating Ireland's depth in the front-row) who dominated from the off with Wilkinson in particular trouble.
Peter O'Mahony was doing well to break free on the retreat, but the Baa-Baas' superiority provided a secure foundation which allowed them to build scores. These arrived from Iain Balshaw, Cornelius van Zyl and Paul Sackey, with Contepomi converting two.
With an inevitable lack of structure, both sides took advantage of defensive lapses (more concerning from an Ireland perspective given the challenges ahead) and Sackey's try from a quick tap exposed confusion with Darren Cave caught on the hop.
There was plenty of meat in the hits and as well as a bit of edge, with Contepomi and O'Gara having a good 2000s-style tussle and O'Mahony squaring up to Baa-Baas forwards in a touchline grip-and-grin.
Ireland's scores came from Craig Gilroy and Keith Earls and were converted by Ronan O'Gara, but while a half-time deficit of 19-14 was manageable, the issues with the scrum, slow ball at the breakdown, lack of depth in attack and some defensive insecurities, it was not the most reassuring 40 minutes ahead of the trip to take on the world champions.
Zebo ghosted in for a try on the resumption, followed by Darren Cave failing to finish his excellent break with a decent scoring pass. Further scores came from Matt Tindall with Ireland responding through Gilroy, following an excellent Keith Earls pass and then Contepomi's clincher.
Ireland will confirm who fills out their touring party today and Ronan Loughney is in the mix to make a late bid for the plane. Initially replacing Fitzpatrick, the Connacht man switched over to the loose-head side when Wilkinson went off and the scrum immediately solidified.
The other spots are likely to be taken by Chris Henry, Paul Marshall and Paul O'Connell, who is to travel out on Saturday.
Bar Loughney and the fact that Gilroy's talent continues to flourish, there was not a whole lot to glean from Kingsholm, but Kidney will be grateful for no further injuries.
Now for the real stuff ... the darkness beckons.