by Conor O'Shea
If you wanted a match of aesthetic beauty, something like a reprise of last weekend’s Ireland v France game, then Rome was not the place to be. Italy did what Italy do: they were tough and uncompromising, gave Ireland no space to play and played to the limits of the game's laws. Nothing wrong with that - you play to your strengths and Italy did so to some effect until they simply tired.
Of Ireland’s five tries, two came from interceptions and one from a quickly taken lineout but in terms of creativity, the blitz defence employed by Italy stifled them. That's a concern and if we are to win the championship and Grand Slam we are going to have to figure it out because if we get to the last game in Cardiff on four wins out of four games, we will face the same defensive style. Unlike Italy, Wales are also a team that can play when they have the ball. The good news is that our next opponents, England, don’t press as hard. However, watching Ireland struggle to cope with the blitz and given the game breakers in our backline I wouldn't be surprised if Mike Ford, England’s defensive coach and formerly Ireland’s, changes things for the showdown at Croke Park in two weeks' time.
Masi should have seen red
As well as pressing hard, Italy played right on the edge. The tone was set in minute one when Andrea Masi received his yellow card for the high tackle on Rob Kearney. The card was correct, the colour wrong. The tackle could have decapitated Kearney, who recovered to play with his now customary assurance and flair, but Masi should have received red. After that, Ireland found the going really hard in that first half and needed the score when Tommy Bowe took the gamble to come off his wing to intercept from some poor Italian handling to show great pace and get a try from 70 metres.
The Italians had numbers out wide but couldn’t capitalise. The, half time approached and with O’Gara in the sin bin, Ireland struck the psychological killer blow. Stephen Ferris hit the ball at pace after countless phases and heroic Italian defence, and managed to offload to Luke Fitzgerald to score his first international try. It is a great moment for any young player but in the context of the match, it was also crucially important.
The second half didn't improve massively. David Wallace scored a try that you felt could see the flood gates open but Italy did not cave in until the last five minutes, during which we had Fitzgerald’s second from a quick lineout and Brian O’Driscoll's version of the 70 metre intercept score. The players will not want to hear too much in the way of grumbling after a five try win in Rome but they know where they forced the game and the mistakes they made will prove costly against better opposition, which England, Scotland and Wales are.
Selection debates for Declan Kidney
The next debate is selection, with hooker (Flannery or Best), scrum half (O’Leary or Stringer and it will still and should be O’Leary) and inside centre (Wallace or D’arcy) up for discussion. The only change I envisage is Gordon D’arcy for the unfortunate Wallace. Wallace has done nothing wrong apart from getting battered two games running but Gordon D’arcy is back and you need say no more.
Will Kidney make the right moves? It is vital for Ireland that he gets it right.
Looking back at these first two weekends of the Six Nations we have learned a huge amount about the art of coaching and selection at this level of the game. Man management as opposed to coaching is arguably the more precious skill at international level.
In the first weekend of the Six Nations we saw Nick Mallet get it horribly wrong with his selection of Mauro Bergamasco, the great Italian flanker, at scrum half. It is not the first time Mallet has got it wrong, witness his selection of Masi, an outstanding centre and now full back, at fly half last year.
He wasn't the only one. The Scotland head coach Frank Hadden denied the blindingly obvious in week one by not selecting the two young bucks in Max and Thom Evans from Glasgow and went with a 'tried and trusted' team that failed him. Against France, he threw the two youngsters in at the deep end and was rewarded with a cutting edge. They are not there yet, but Scotland are on the way back to having something and will be a serious threat to us in Murrayfield.
Meanwhile, France and their head coach Marc Lievremont continue to baffle me. Rightly lauded for the way they played against us last week, they were awful against Scotland. Take nothing away from the Scots, who gave it their all with a depleted pack, but Livremont, with all the talent he has at his disposal, just doesn’t do anything for me. If France succeed it will be 'in spite of', not 'because of', him.
Finally there is England who went with a defensive selection to contain Wales. Wales were without Shane Williams but still played with verve. Even so, with the little wizard gone they lacked that extra spark.
England: saw their chance but left it too late
But England couldn't take advantage. They realised too late that they had a chance but would need something more than mere containment to take it. When they threw on Toby Flood for Andy Goode, the team suddenly had direction, shape and ambition. Flood together with Matthew Tait, Tom Croft, Dylan Hartley, Delon Armitage represent the future for England. If England stick with them and reintroduce Danny Cipriani to the bench, they will play a different and more threatening game in Croker in two weeks time.
Declan Kidney is the coach – Warren Gatland apart – who has got his selection right so far but he will now be asking himself a few questions. He will be desperate to keep his star men fit as all the coaching in the world won't help if one or two key men go missing.
I have already mentioned the effect that losing Shane Williams has on Wales and that is just one player. We can just hope and pray that Ronan O’Gara stays fit, as for all the quality in the team he is the one irreplaceable player for Ireland, and Kidney knows it.
But we are still on the right track albeit, after the euphoria of the French game, back down to earth. Even still, with two wins under our belt and a home game against a transitional England coming up, Ireland top the table. They will take the usual criticism that seems to come after most wins against Italy and already, they will be quietly steeling themselves for a battle royal in two weeks time. I’ll come back to that one next week.
In the meantime, let's enjoy being top of the pile.