Because on a day when the opposition had little to offer beyond enthusiasm, Eddie O’Sullivan’s team made hard work of putting them away. That they eventually did was down to some honest-to-God hard work from the pack.
The old line about forwards winning the game and backs determining by how much was never truer than here. From Reggie Corrigan to Anthony Foley, excellence was routine. It was when the ball came to the supposed stars of the side that Ireland ran into trouble. David Humphreys was nervy and unsure at times, Denis Hickie dropped more passes then he usually would in a season and Kevin Maggs flapped at a few tackles he’d normally gobble up. Even the golden boy himself, captain Brian O’Driscoll, had something approaching a stinker. Only Geordan Murphy emerged with any credit, turning in a confident, classy performance at full-back. Girvan Dempsey will be lucky to get back in the side for the game against France on March 8.
The hosts were poor on the day and the fear expressed in one Italian newspaper to the effect that having beaten Wales the previous week, the team had reached its target of one Six Nations win and would therefore be sated, did have some currency. They were their usual physical selves, to be sure, but had nothing in the way of innovation or imagination to back their physicality up. Even Diego Dominguez, their usually reliable outhalf, had nothing to offer and he was substituted just 8 minutes into the second half.
Thing is, there have been many times in the past where an Ireland side has come up against a poor team armed with nothing more than the willingness to have a go and blanched at the prospect. There was a brief spell here, just after Denis Dallan crossed for the home side’s only try after 56 minutes, where the idea of an Italian revival was ludicrous. It brought the gap between the sides down to an eminently manageable 13 points and you feared that if Italy got the next score, Irish jitters would set in as had happened so many times before.
But this Ireland side is different. It’s all grown up now and it doesn’t panic. Here they went up the other end of the pitch, Humphreys drew the Italian midfield and flicked a no-look pass to O’Driscoll just as Cristain Stoica creased him, and the skipper zipped over the line for his 18th international try. It made him Ireland’s all-time leading try scorer but, more important, it quelled whatever little bit of rebellion the Italians had in mind. The contest effectively ended at that point.
It had begun scrappily. Kicks were misdirected, passes mishandled and neither side looked particularly cohesive for the first quarter. Ireland took control mainly from the set piece. The lineout was particularly effective, Malcolm O’Kelly having one of those days where every ball stuck unfailingly. He stole five of Carlo Festuccia’s throws and Gary Longwell even managed to get in on the act, snaffling one himself. The scrum was equally awesome. Italy were supposed to be at least on level terms in this department but they were utterly demolished.
Every one of the forwards had a pleasing afternoon. Foley and Victor Costello barged and bustled almost at will and while Keith Gleeson wasn’t as barnstorming as he had been in Murrayfield six days earlier, he was still proficient in everything he did. The one cloud to all those silver linings, however, was Corrigan’s broken wrist, an injury that has ruled him out of the rest of the championship. It was cruel on the Leinster captain, who has made the No. 1e shirt his own since Peter Clohessy retired last season.
The tries came from five different sources, all but two of them cases of backs cashing the checks the forward wrote for them. Peter Stringer touched down from all of three inches after splendid work from Costello. John Kelly and Humphreys both galloped over after Gleeson drew the attention of extra tacklers. Murphy’s was the only genuine result of wizardry, Humphreys and O’Driscoll combining beautifully and letting the Leicester man do the rest in style.
And so to France, who arrive Lansdowne Road a week from Saturday. The hype machine is cranking itself up around this team and there is a lot of loose talk around at the moment. Usually sane heads are talking of this being the best collection of green-jerseyed players ever (Tony Ward) and of the Grand Slam being a real possibility (Neil Francis). But two triumps over two poor sides does not a great team make. How they handle France will be the real test.
Italy 13: D. Dallan, try; D. Dominguez, pen.; R. Pez, pen., con. Ireland 37: P. Stringer, J. Kelly, B. O’Driscoll, G. Murphy, all tries; D. Humphreys, try, 2 pens., 3 cons.