By Claire Glancy
PERFORMING under pressure. After their defeat to Wales, that’s the challenge Ireland faced before even taking to pitch against Italy. So when Sergio Parisse crossed the whitewash to level the sides late in the first half on Saturday, the pressure cooker reached boiling point. “Come the day and come the hour” Ireland’s response was critical if they were going to get their RBS 6 Nations campaign back on track.
Tommy Bowe’s try in the 39th minute not only put the hosts back in front but it was the first step in rebuilding confidence in a side that has rarely reached its potential since the Grand Slam of 2009. The momentum was back in Ireland’s favour and set up an excellent second half performance which saw them score 25 unanswered points.
Critics will say those points don’t carry much weight when they come against a side like Italy, who by their own admission eventually just gave up, but it’s the manner in which Ireland played and the ease with how those scores came that means they will travel to the Stade de France in a very different frame of mind to a fortnight ago.
Of course, they will still be underdogs. As World Cup finalists, France started the tournament as favourites and remain unbeaten but the underdog tag sits more comfortably with Ireland so if they can continue to gather momentum then they won’t fear the French as much as before.
By now Declan Kidney has had a good look at all of his players in action so it will be interesting to see if there will be any changes to the starting XV in Paris.
At Lansdowne Road, the introduction of Eoin Reddan after 53 minutes ramped up the tempo. Jonathan Sexton, who was excellent at controlling play, looked more at ease with his Leinster team-mate feeding him quick ball than he had with Conor Murray’s service.
Ireland’s back three of Bowe, Rob Kearney and Andrew Trimble all had notable performances and the centre partnership of Gordon D’Arcy and Keith Earls worked much better. Interestingly though it was Sexton and Bowe who finished in the Centre. Could it be that Bowe at 13 has the physical attributes to counteract the battering ram that is Aurelien Rougerie?
The scrum was an area of concern and Ireland lost a couple of line outs (one of which led to Parisse’s try) but whether concentration was better after the break or Italy tired, the scrum improved. Stephen Ferris and Paul O’Connell were both outstanding but a question mark remains over who will partner O’Connell in the second row. When called upon, Donnacha Ryan does all he can to take the starting place from Donncha O’Callaghan.
Another issue for Kidney is getting the best out of Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip who have struggled to stamp their authority so far – something that will be crucial in disrupting the French and stopping their big ball carriers.
Playing against Wales, errors and lack of discipline cost Ireland dearly. A “sloppy” first half against Italy could be put down to rustiness but Ireland got away with it. France is a much tougher test in which any lapses in concentration will be exploited. Scotland showed on Sunday that France do have their weaknesses but ultimately Les Bleus were able to up their game.
With Wales already winning the Triple Crown, whispers of a Grand Slam have started and it will take a lot to stop them. But at least Ireland’s victory over Italy has kept alive their Championship hopes. They go to Paris more confident but seeing as they’ve only won there once since 1972, they also have to be realistic about their chances.
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