There was a brightness in Eddie O'Sullivan's eyes, briefly, during yesterday's customary morning-after-the-match-before catch-up with the Ireland head coach. It was not a glint reflected from the chandeliers in the team's south Dublin hotel. It was the welcome release of a few seconds spent discussing a singular aspect of the previous day's five-point defeat of Italy at Croke Park which broke the otherwise world-weary mood.
"If the ball is quick: great, go and play with it," O'Sullivan enthused, in response to a question about Ireland's difficulty securing and using good ruck ball. "If it slows down to the point where it's semi-quick, semi-slow, you're better off holding it to get organised. If you attack in an unstructured way you're going to get knocked down again and again. It's a feature of the game in the last few years. We saw in the World Cup a lot of teams leave it there, build a little house and go round the side, punching a little hole. Georgia in the World Cup played for 10 minutes in an area half the size of this room."
It made sense, and indeed O'Sullivan almost always does when he is talking rugby, which makes the air of torpor around this Ireland team all the more perplexing. Even their jerseys, ridiculously tailored with more white piping than a wedding cake, could do with ripping up and starting again. Italy, with their new coach Nick Mallett, new fly-half Andrea Masi and new captain Sergio Parisse, could scarcely believe that, having fallen 10-0 behind early on to a penalty by Ronan O'Gara and a fine converted try by Girvan Dempsey, they were hammering at the Ireland line with a chance of nicking a win in added time at the end.
"You can't be happy to lose but we played well and defended well," said Martin Castrogiovanni, Italy's tighthead prop and 61st-minute try-scorer from a surging lineout drive. "Nick Mallett wants a big front five, pressure, aggression and tackling. With more time together we will get better and better."
Can we say the same about O'Sullivan's Ireland? They lost Gordon D'Arcy for the rest of the Six Nations – the Leinster centre will have an operation today after fracturing his right forearm in a tackle on Masi – which may mean a recall for Shane Horgan to face France in Paris on Saturday, perhaps on the wing with Andrew Trimble deployed in the centres. Paul O'Connell is a couple of weeks off being ready to return to the second-row.
But what of the largely untried Rob Kearney, Jamie Heaslip, Tony Buckley, Bernard Jackman and Mick O'Driscoll – all of whom were used as replacements here – or the outside backs Tommy Bowe and Luke Fitzgerald? One wonders if Ireland's supporters, who are not as slavishly wedded to the simple win-lose dichotomy as coaches, might appreciate O'Sullivan giving it more of "a lash". Possibly not at Stade de France, though.
The Parisian Sunday in 2000 when Brian O'Driscoll danced to a hat-trick of tries is long gone, and Ireland have lost the last six meetings.
"In Six Nations rugby, the odds are you're not going to get a big performance every week," O'Sullivan reasoned, "and the first one is always a ropey one because it's your first time together for several months. It would have been nicer to have scored more points and finished what we created, certainly in the first half. We created a number of line breaks and I think we attacked all the right areas but we didn't do it very well." One of the best chances was wasted when Geordan Murphy passed behind Dempsey. No coach in the world could cater for that.
As for Mallett, perhaps his mind flashed back a decade to the summer of 1998, when a touring Ireland team unafraid to use their fists were thrashed by his Springboks. The man may be new to this championship but he has history with all six nations. Mallett's world record-equalling streak of Test wins ended against England at Twickenham in December 1998. Next up for Italy? England in Rome on Sunday.
Ireland: G Dempsey (Leinster); A Trimble (Ulster), B O'Driscoll (Leinster, capt), G D'Arcy (Leinster), G Murphy (Leicester); R O'Gara (Munster), E Reddan (London Wasps); M Horan (Munster), R Best (Ulster), J Hayes (Munster), D O'Callaghan (Munster), M O'Kelly (Leinster), S Easterby (Llanelli Scarlets), D Wallace (Munster), D Leamy (Munster). Replacements: R Kearney (Leinster) for D'Arcy, 25; J Heaslip (Leinster) for Easterby, 59; B Jackman (Leinster) for Best, 60; M O'Driscoll (Munster) for O'Kelly, 66; T Buckley (Munster) for Hayes, 73; P Stringer (Munster) for Reddan, 74.
Italy: D Bortolussi (Montpellier); K Robertson (Viadana), G Canale (Clermont Auvergne), Mi Bergamasco (Stade Français), P Canavosio (Castres); A Masi (Biarritz), P Travagli (Overmach Cariparma); A lo Cicero (Racing-Métro), L Ghiraldini (Calvisano), M Castrogiovanni (Leicester), S Dellapè (Biarritz), C del Fava (Ulster), J Sole (Viadana), Ma Bergamasco (Stade Français), S Parisse (Stade Français, capt). Replacements: E Galon (Overmach Cariparma) for Canavosio, 23; A Zanni (Calvisano) for Sole, h-t; C Festuccia (Racing-Métro) for Ghiraldini, 54; S Perugini (Toulouse) for Lo Cicero, 54; T Reato (Rovigo) for Del Fava, 73; L Cittadini (Calvisano) for Castrogiovanni, 79.
Referee: J Kaplan (South Africa).
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