We generally operate a strict Cliché Policy here at HarpinOnRugby Manor, one so strict it gets capital letters. And right up there at the top of the list of phrases to avoid is any form of “Italian Job” when Leinster or Ireland’s opponents hail from there.
But as we often find in life no matter how hard you work formulating a policy, events can conspire to make you find a way around them, and I can’t for the life of me think of a title that befits this result for Ireland better than “Job Done”.
It also works when outlining the performance of Ian Keatley at out-half. By no means perfect, but certainly as good as the majority of Six Nations débutantes over the years and definitely better than that of his opposite number on the day Kelly Haimona.
The bulk of the negative in Ireland’s display clearly comes from the fact that it took 64 minutes to get over their line, and when we did it was with the extra man (two actually for the second try as Barbini was down receiving treatment). Of course, to only focus on that would be unfair on the Italian defence which has to be commended for some incredible tackling numbers (flanker Minto to the fore with 24 and none missed).
But that doesn’t mean there are no concerns, and I’m not sure we can lay the entire blame at Keatley’s feet. Yes, he misjudged a kick or two from the hand and despite his comfort with his scrum-half, was at times a fraction off the pace linking up with those outside him, but our lack of progress seemed to be down to more than that.
It appeared to me that the game plan was simply to wear down the Italian forwards and then reap the benefits. It’s a high risk plan because you still have to go and get the scores, but one of the things Joe Schimdt seems to have instilled in his squad is a sense of belief that staying to the script will get the, here comes that phrase again, job done.
And it wasn’t as though our persistence wasn’t paying off at all. The Italians made a large chunk of their 198 tackles in the first half, and with us enjoying two-thirds of the territory as well as possession, there were bound to be kickable penalties to go along with those tackles, and for this Keatley deserves the maximum of credit for slotting everything from the tee.
I just felt in the second half that the boys in green could sense that a score was imminent. We kept pressing and pressing and gradually our centres Henshaw and Payne were leading the way in wearing down the Italian resistance (that last phrase tempts me to reach for a WWII metaphor but those will ALWAYS be banned from HoR!).
On a couple of occasions in the third quarter we passed on a scrum advantage which baffled me. Surely we had some killer move from tjhe Schmidt playbook which would put this game to bed? Yet more often than not, even though our lead was still only 6, we meandered back down the phase maze and got ourselves hopelessly lost.
The key moment for me was on 54 minutes. Referee Pascal Gauzere got in the way of one of our moves and we got a scrum. For me it was absolutely critical that we got some kind of score from that set piece, and the Italian pack obliged by illegally wheeling the scrum and allowing Keatley to establish a 9-point margin.
That gave us the edge to continue our pummelling and you could tell that eventually something had to give way. A cheeky grubber by Tommy Bowe was blocked into touch by Masi and we had an attacking lineout. The Italians were illegal at the maul as they had been towards the end of the first half, and credit to Simon Easterby & his pack, their organisation was such that the home side had to do the same again the next time and hooker Ghiraldini was sent to the bin.
Now with the extra man, on the very next set piece we saw Jordi Murphy, my tip to get our first try in my preview, bring it just short of the line before being stopped and Conor Murray getting the, er, job done moments later.
Perhaps Ian Keatley wasn’t involved in the move which actually got us over, but he had plenty to do with the work that led up to it and should definitely be proud of his performance. I hope I’m not misunderstood, however, when I say that in all likelihood he’ll be back playing for Munster next weekend against Cardiff in the Pro12 - should that be the case, I genuinely hope that he is warmly welcomed.
With Johnny Sexton due back next week, it was up another Ian to show he is the leading candidate to put in a late shift at out half if required, and after replacing Keatley following the opening try, with his first play he bravely went with the “wraparound” move he hand trouble getting going last week, and what’s more, it worked well.
Then shortly afterwards he put Tommy O’Donnell through for the decisive second try...like I said before, there was an Italian in the bin and one on the deck, but still the midfield was crowded and it took a pinpoint pass and a strong finish to get across the whitewash.
After we built that 23-point margin, a curious thing happened - Italy started to play some rugby. It’s not like they hadn’t had chances before then...they were good at retrieving their own kickoffs but that normally seemed to be the extent of their progress. Sergio Parrisse’s brief seemed to be to wait for something to happen and take advantage rather than actually make something happen.
That’s a bit unfair on him though...I wasn’t overly impressed by my first test look at Kelly Haimona at 10. In the clip you see the first ever Vine from HarpinOnRugby (bit late to the party I know but better that than never) - in it you may think I’m making fun of Italian centre Luc Morisi but the whole incident happened after Haimona showed chronic indecision over a seemingly simple situation where he needed to boot the leather off the ball.
Once the game was put out of reach it could be said that perhaps we got complacent, but in actual fact I think the late Italian rally was also down to the introduction of Tomasso Allan to the first receiver position. And had the ball not grazed Parrisse fingernail Haimona, who had moved to inside centre and seemed much more effective, would have had a try but it was disallowed for the knockon and we were able to close out the game.
Schmidt-ball is not so much about individual performances, more about how they come together as a unit and execute the plays. As well as the names I have already mentioned, there were also good showing from our front row at scrum time, our second row at lineout time (some excellent steals by both Toner and O’Connell) and our back row in the loose, particularly Tommy O’Donnell who’s day went much differently to how he expected it.
And the biggest compliment I can pay to the Munster flanker is that I only feel it necessary to mention the late omission of Sean O’Brien this far down the writeup. It was of course tragic for him personally and as Irish fans we were all shocked and disappointed to hear the late news but if someone offered us a 23-point victory at that point, as another saying goes, we’d have taken their arm off.
Even if Seanie can’t make it next week, and it’s not looking good, we still have Sexton, Healy and Reddan likely to return. We have a win and 23 point-differential in the bank. And what’s more, we have Joe who himself has 80 minutes of France failing to cross the Scottish try line in Paris to pour over.
I say we chalk this win up as a good thing and prepare to shout the house down at the Aviva next weekend when there’s another job to be done.
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Also this weekend
Italy Women 5-30 Ireland Women
Italy Under-20s 15 - 47 Ireland Under-20s
Wales 16 - 21 England
France 15 - 8 Scotland
Friday, February 13
Ireland U20 v France U20, Dubarry Park, 7:05pm
Ireland Women v France Women, Ashbourne RFC, 7:30pm
Saturday, February 14
England v Italy, Twickenham, 2:30pm
Ireland v France, Aviva Stadium, 5pm
Sunday, February 15
Scotland v Wales, Murrayfield, 3pm