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Six Nations victory over Italy offers Ireland hope of further glory


Well in: Tommy O’Donnell is lauded after his try

Well in: Tommy O’Donnell is lauded after his try

Well in: Tommy O’Donnell is lauded after his try

Saturday day always begins with Friday night. And it was then that this Six Nations began for fans of Ireland, packed so tight into Scholar's Bar in the heart of Rome that many punters merely stood in the doorway listening to the booming television commentary.

Not since Donegal town's Abbey Hotel Easter Sunday disco has this writer experienced crowding like it.

You might also be interested to learn that Scholars is also home to the €6 pint of stout, and the smallest gents toilets in the world for sure, bro.

They are nothing more than what we knew as 'the hot press' in our youth. You can touch either wall between the stainless steel urinal and the tiles. The trough is around 9ft long.

In order to gain access, your faithful correspondent had to nudge past a bull of a man in an Ireland jersey. I chose to edge along the tiles. He didn't.

Yep, you know where this is going.

He gave me a mouthful which I happily took. The alternative was an appalling vista.

Onwards to matchday itself and what immediately grabs you is that space is everyone's friend when it comes to building a pre-game atmosphere in the spacious surroundings of the Olympic Stadium.

It's not uncommon for sporting venues to immortalise their own Gods in statues. Immediate examples that spring to mind include the unfeasibly large rendering of Dixie Dean outside Goodison Park, the Best, Law and Charlton triumvirate on the forecourt of Old Trafford, and the stately, plump statue of Michael Cusack at the back of the stand named in his honour at Croke Park.

However, as you approach the stadium from the Viale della Olimpia, you notice that Romans have left classical gods dotted around the place. A nice touch.

Inside, the stadium is just another one of those grounds that instantly bestows that feeling that this is one of the centres of the world's attention on that particular day.

No point mixing words, the game was a tremendous let-down. Italy put up an astonishing defence and forced Ireland into a narrow, grinding session. Sure, things opened up a bit in the second half but this was a professional job done and nothing more.

It was an example of rustiness from a side that had not played together in a few months, and in the meantime had their heads in their provincial side bubble.

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You expect that the Italian media might have expected an honourable defeat, something that perhaps was robbed off them when Kelly Haimona's try was ruled out due to a knock-on by Sergio Parisse.

Even so, their expressive nature displays them in a bit of foul humour.

Their post-match analysis television show, 'The Rugby Social Club' is instructive. It may be true that I have zero Italian beyond being mannerly to shopkeepers and waiters, but you can sense when a bit of caterwauling is performed over a result.

Even the post-match press conference had a whiff of the p*****-off as one female writer had a mini-spat with an official who wanted her to get rid of her plastic glass of water. A couple of journalists in front of her leapt to her passionate defence and the jobsworth was sent packing.

The press questions are asked in a hall fit to host five-a-side football, and Jacques Brunel and Sergio Parisse are first in to rake over the coals.

Parisse, who might well be the world's finest number 8, said: "When you play a team like Ireland you cannot defend for eight minutes. But if you expect to win matches, you need possession and from our point of view we will win zero. We have to take a lesson from this match."

Ireland manager Joe Schmidt and captain Paul O'Connell followed. Just to be parochial for a second, he was asked about Rory Best, who had to be withdrawn after taking a blow to the head.

"Rory's fine. I was just talking to him," said the New Zealander.

"He did get a knock. We decided to err on the side of caution. We want to be fairly careful there."

Underneath the stadium, the mixed zone felt like a fridge, with the overall atmosphere not helped by the symbolism of the bright orange gates, set there to keep journalists at a respectful distance from the athletes and the blazers.

It feels like you are in a cattle pen. You are the cattle and you're begging for the players to pitchfork some silage your direction in the form of workable quotes. It's demeaning.

There's probably no need to bore you with the details, but it only really got tasty when Ian Keatley opened up on how he will find it, if and when Johnny Sexton is returned to the line-up for the next game against the French.

"Ireland is a better team with Johnny Sexton in it," Keatley said, and with that, team manager Michael Kearney and press officer David O'Siochain moved in to end what was threatening to become an interesting conversation. Heaven forbid.

What had threatened to be one of those glorious, Technicolor Six Nations days had drawn to a clinical, cold close.

Anyway, we leave you with one final image of a Roman weekend.

In the achingly-hip Trastevere area west of the Tiber, crowds mingled in the authentic restaurants. The unmistakable howl of Delta Blues was growling out of the basement Blues club 'Big Mama's' and the city was alive with promise.

But there wasn't an Irish sinner in any of those places. Seeking comfort in familiarity, pubs such as Scholars, Flann O'Brien's and many more were brimful of green-clad supporters burying pints of porter.

Occasionally, perennial dirge 'The Fields of Athenry' would get a murdering.

Perhaps it's the island mentality. Maybe it's a question of personal taste. You can decide for yourself.

We turn our attentions to next week, and allow me to be the first to rehash our old friendly wisdom warning of the dangers in kicking loosely to the French.

Our Six Nations has only begun.

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