by Brent Pope
Against France, it was great to see an Irish team with real self-belief, team spirit and camaraderie, because it has been absent for a few years. Ireland grew stronger through the game when a few years ago, you might have seen some players on the team start to think 'the French are coming' and wilt a bit.
What it came down was that this was a team that looked like they wanted to play for each-other. Even though there were times when France looked like they might get away, Ireland were able to stay in it.
In fact, watching the tape again, I am still mystified as to how Ireland were ahead at half-time. France had a huge number of line-breaks in the first-half and weren't far away from opening a gap on the scoreboard. But Ireland kept at it and in fact were quite 'Munster-ish' in the way they kept digging in. The Munster way in the tough matches – against the likes of Clermont – is to stay in it and then take your chances when they come. That's exactly what Ireland did.
But Ireland were also helped by the referee. For France not to get a penalty until the 78th minute when you consider that they were the team doing all the attacking in the first-half is astonishing. Ireland won't get that every week. Another problem that you hope will have been looked at would have been the out of hand kicking, which invited the French to come at Ireland on the counter.
But overall, Ireland did really well and they need to carry the positive attitude forward into this match against Italy.
'It would have been unfair to drop Wallace'
The Paddy Wallace versus Gordon D'Arcy issue has been talked about but I think it would have been unfair to drop Wallace after this match, even though D'Arcy got his try. Wallace didn't really get a chance to show what he can do. That said, D'Arcy will put pressure on later in the season and if Wallace doesn't come up to scratch he will be then become an option.
Alongside Wallace, Brian O'Driscoll played a brilliant match but there are different factors that helped make that happen. First, it is no coincidence that O'Driscoll scored his try in the manner that he did against France. It was very similar to the types of tries he has scored against French teams before and his record of getting tries against them is very good. That's partly because of the way the French defend. They are more prepared to let you have a run at them and back their drift or slide defence to take care of it. O'Driscoll thrives on that.
Ireland will face a different type of defence against Italy and Wales. Basically, those teams will play with a more flat-up defence – the defenders moving up in a straight line to make the hit - and against the tighter defences it is not certain whether he is better off at 12 or 13. Having said that, with D'Arcy still on the way back and Luke Fitzgerald looking as though he is better off on the wing, O'Driscoll will be at outside-centre for a while.
As I said, Italy will defend hard and like every Six Nations away game, this is a potential banana skin.
It's no secret that they will try to play a 10-man game. They don't really have the capacity to counter-attack like France and they don't have much in the outside backs to trouble Ireland with unless they are winning up front. They will take Ireland on in the scrum and breakdown, keep it tight and use guys like Sergio Parisse off the scrum-half Paul Griffen, who will organise them in the tight and can also put in a few kicks over the top. They don't have much more than that to give.
Ireland need to get width on the ball
If Ireland can find a way to get width on the ball they should have too much ammunition but if they get in a dog-fight they could get themselves in trouble. In that sense, having Paul O'Connell there with him not having not played this fixture in 2007 and 2008 is significant. O'Connell is a giant of the world game at this stage and you can see what he brings to Munster when he is there and what they lose when he isn't. He is exactly the type of player you want to go to Italy with – the first name on the team-sheet when it comes to the type of trench warfare you can expect to see. But as a pack, Ireland shouldn't get beaten up in the forwards and if they can manage in there, they should then have the class out wide to score points.
It will be tough but I actually think it will turn out to be reasonably convincing win for them.
In the other games, I don't England will upset Wales but I think it will be closer than some people are predicting. There's the history between the nations and England would love to give Martin Johnson a win and they would also love to put a end to Wales' Grand Slam ambitions. Wales should win but I think it will be tight.
Scotland might have had a chance if France had been cock-a-hoop after a win over Ireland but now, with France smarting over a loss in Dublin, it's a tough match for them. I expect a convincing win for France.