Up in the press box no doubt countless journalists had begun the process of resisting the urge to go with oft used headlines “Italian Job Done” at full time as the result looked beyond doubt even at that stage.
One of Italy’s best performers on the day Michele Campagnaro had just chipped a tentative ball down the touchline before Simon Zebo let it dribble over the tryline and touched it down. 22 drop out to Ireland; simple thing to do is to punt it long, let the chasers keep the visitors pinned in their own half, and go into the break.
But Fergus McFadden, on for the second of his three cameos on the day, had other ideas. He brought it to the 22 and made like he was going to take a quick one, but the Italians were ready for that. Fine. Over to Sexton who will probably put it long now.
Referee Angus Gardner gave instruction to the Irish players to stay behind the Irish outhalf before the kick. Devin Toner was particularly keen to be level with the kicker. Could we really be trying something at this stage?
In the end it was actually Donncha Ryan, a candidate for man of the match though perhaps not the best one, who got to Sexton’s little chip first and batted it back to a grateful Jack McGrath as the Italians were slow to react. Now we had possession on our own 22 - no doubt we’ll probe for a few phases and if we get nowhere we’ll punt it into Row Z.
Eh, no. After the first phase, Conor Murray ships it to Sexton who is on the 22 and has four backs outside him. The first is McFadden who has no hesitation assisting in the trademark “wraparound” play which draws a couple of defenders before Sexton gets it to Zebo.
In an instant not only do we have a “three on two” out wide, but our full back (after a slight juggle of the ball to start) turns on the jets and sprints between the Italians in question Bellini and Campagnaro, with Jared Payne and Andrew Trimble alongside him on the touchline. Another defender comes over to cover so Zebo needs a way to get the ball to his team mate.
The back-handed offload is impressive at any time when it works, but when it does so among players running at pace it becomes a thing of beauty. And it’s not just for show either...it has many technical merits as well. If you must use one hand to transfer the ball to a teammate, twisting it gives you a better chance of propelling the ball with pace and this is precisely what Zebo did.
Now the Aviva Stadium crowd were on their feet, though some probably were anyway being en route to the bar or the jacks. Yet as Payne received the ball he was still inside his own half - a lot of work still left to do to make this into a scoring play.
He had Trimble’s run behind him blocking off the challenge of one chasing defender but the scrumhalf Palazzani had him in his sights so the Ulster player needed an outlet...a glance to his left showed him Sexton in support and the outhalf was able to receive the ball in full flight.
Now we’re well into the Italian half. Sexton is hardly lacking in pace himself and he was being sized up for a tackle by his opposite number Padovani - this left him with two options...beat him outside or ship it inside to Trimble who had continued his run.
In the end Johnny went for option 2 with a twist, moving the ball around putting his tackler in two minds before lobbing it into Trimble’s path. Now the Ulster winger had it and we’re at the opposition 22 but there are more scrambling defenders about.
What Trimble did here was almost as impressive as Zebo’s offload moments earlier. Knowing exactly when the tackle was about to hit, holding the “pill” in both hands he expertly lifts it over the Italian which frees him up to pass it on to McFadden, who never gave up after helping with the wraparound.
And speaking of never giving up...what about Jamie Heaslip? In a determined run that was reminiscent of All Black Kieran Read’s line that denied Rob Kearney going under the posts at the same end of the ground in 2013, he was there to receive the ball from McFadden with the line a tantalising 12m or so away.
The pass from his fellow Leinster man was a tad behind him so he had to reach back to get it, but despite the attentions of both Sarto and a lunging Padovani, the Irish vice captain hadn’t come all this way to be denied at the end and there was quite simply no stopping him getting that ball down as the clock was just about to hit 40.
I actually feel sorry for those Irish fans who could only react to that try (and this match) by pointing out how poor the Italians were. I mean yes, after having almost all the territory and possession in the opening 5-6 minutes, they were extremely poor (their skipper freely admitted it afterwards), and once we started getting any semblance of attacking ball they couldn’t keep up with us.
But if the All Blacks scored a try like that, no matter what the opposition was, the rugby world would be singing their praises for weeks. And in Super Rugby, where such broken play scores are common, it would be held up as an example of the “superior” brand of rugby in the southern hemisphere.
This result isn’t going to wash away what happened against Argentina, or France, or England. And on the evidence of what happened in Murrayfield yesterday, there are no guarantees that we’ll be able to do anything near as well against Scotland next Saturday. But for the love of all that’s holy, can we not as fans celebrate an impressive display for a couple of days at the very least? Well, that’s what I’m doing anyway.
Last Wednesday I posted a piece titled “Let Schmidt Be Schmidt” where I wanted to see the Irish style of play evolving more towards the kind of rugby Joe was known for at Leinster, albeit while finding a new edge to the forward play which would help us get on the front foot.
To help make my point I made reference to a try scored by Brian O’Driscoll against the Cardiff Blues in 2012. Well, sweet and all as that score was, Heaslip’s definitely tops it, mostly because it was more down to the mindset of the players rather than strict adherence to pre-planned moves.
Oh, and did I mention this was but one of as many as NINE tries on the day? And it probably would have been more if the ref hadn’t mercifully kept his card in his pocket throughout, particularly right at the very end. I chose to harp on that one try in such detail just to be a little different this week…there were of course some fine scores among the others as well.
And when those I affectionately call #SchmidtStirrers aren’t bemoaning the weakness of our opposition, another narrative I see being peddled is that because this was apparently yet another “conservative” selection by Joe, we’ll “learn nothing going forward”. You see, because the championship is gone, we “have to” field a team full of youngsters now otherwise we won’t reap the benefit at a later date.
Now in fairness, I did feel badly for Stuart McCloskey being left out of the matchday 23, because I thought he did extremely well against England. But that said, I can totally appreciate how the coach values his “Henshayne” pairing in the centre because both were magnificent once again, with the ball at times yes but most of all on defence...even the try Jared got for himself was the result of lightning quick line speed and whenever the Italian centres Garcia and Campagnaro (neither of whom are slouches) looked to threaten they were quickly snuffed out by their opposite numbers.
If we can keep those two fit throughout the three tests in South Africa (and with their provinces still well in Pro12 contention that’s a reasonably-sized if) we can provide the new Springboks coaching ticket (whatever it might be) with a headache-filled honeymoon period in June.
But going back to this performance….sorry to harp on the nay-sayers so much but I have to point out the displays of three in particular...Jamie Heaslip, Simon Zebo and Fergus McFadden. Not for the first time there was much consternation over their selection yet not only were all three heavily involved in the “wonder try” but Jamie bagged a second for himself, Ferg got one and Zebo impressed in more ways than one flashy offload.
Elsewhere we had Jack McGrath surely nailing down the number one jersey for himself going forward...whatever about Cian Healy rediscovering his fitness/form/mojo for him to leapfrog McGrath would even have me showing dissent.
Then there’s Josh van der Flier. Yeah, remember that whole thing about not trying out youngsters? 15 tackles, a “cute” clear out that helped pave the way for McGrath’s try and overall another display that helps complete his amazing journey this season where from Pro 12 to Champions Cup to Test level he has shown he belongs.
Finally on Donncha Ryan...I know I probably came across as “provincial” by suggesting earlier he wasn’t worthy of man of the match, but the truth is I have always been a fan of his and I love his attitude...he has developed an “anthem game face” reputation to rival that of Peter O’Mahony but it’s only a part of the picture he is a character I feel every team should have on the pitch...I just thought others like maybe Henshaw or Heaslip deserved it more on the day.
As much as we’d love to deny that money only plays a limited role in rugby, the fact remains that there’s a lot of it still to play for this season. Third place on the final Six Nations table is definitely worth pushing for, even if it means we might need England to complete the Grand Slam for us to get there.
Then we have the very real possibility of getting all four provinces into next season’s Champions Cup. Doesn’t take a maths scholar to appreciate that four slices of a pie divided twenty ways is worth more than three. And while I’m on the subject of the provinces, wasn’t it great to see five Connacht players on the park for the boys in green all at once? Not bad for a coach not willing to experiment, eh?
I want Joe & his team to face scrutiny, especially when the performances and results aren’t what they should be. But I also want to enjoy the good days, and this was definitely one; victories for the Women and Under 20s did no harm either. No better way to take a load off at the weekend, that’s for sure. JLP
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