Life in the old dog yet
February 5, 2011
Ronan O'Gara rescued Ireland with a late drop-goal © Getty Images
With a swing of his trusty boot, Ronan O'Gara may have kick-started the pulse of Ireland's old guard for one last charge.
The talk in the build-up to this Six Nations, among the coaching staff and players, has rightly been one of growth, squad building and preparation for the future following a clutch of high-profile injuries but if Ireland's narrow 13-11 victory over Italy proved anything, it was that a little bit of experience can sometimes go a long way.
In a Rugby World Cup year there is a chance for certain players to have one last hurrah - read Jason Leonard in 2003 or, for a less successful example, Gregan and Larkham four years later - and Ireland undoubtedly have a few players who can contribute in a short, sharp burst.
Time may be up for John Hayes but O'Gara, Brian O'Driscoll, Paul O'Connell and the class of 2009 played a major role in rescuing a vital win from the jaws of what would have been a hammer-blow of a defeat. The teams will meet again this year, in Dunedin in the final game of Pool C at the World Cup, and on this evidence Ireland will need every ounce to get across the line.
With Fergus McFadden on debut, Mike Ross playing his first Six Nations tie and Cian Healy still learning the ropes as an international scrummager, it was left to the old breed to add the finishing touches to a victory that will not go down as one of the tournament's most convincing.
O'Driscoll's words from this week's build up, 'It's inevitable that at some stage Italy will beat us in a Six Nations games, let's just hope it's not tomorrow' almost came back to haunt the great man, whose bursts set up O'Gara at the death - just the 212 caps in tandem.
Ireland can rest easy in the knowledge that the next lot of players are beginning to arrive but the way they are managed this year will be intriguing. The Wolfhounds also turned over their more widely publicised English counterparts, the Saxons, in Belfast on Friday night and the players above have all graduated from that arena in the past 12 months.
In the here and now however, a visibly angry O'Driscoll will have plenty to say in chorus with coach Declan Kidney and Ireland's focus could become more short-term as 2011 wears on, a move that undoubtedly has its pros and cons. How do you balance development against the requirements of a knockout tournament?
With home games against France and England this season Ireland have a real chance for a tilt at the title but must first find a way to marry a cutting edge to their endeavour. Jonny Sexton's back-to-front game, where he reverted to a varied, effective tactical kicking game only in the second-half exemplified the lack of cohesion that dogged Ireland for much of the game and the young Leinster pivot will need to assess his options more effectively. He was not alone in this fault and Ireland allowed Italy to stick to their task and play to their strengths.
In Sergio Parisse they have one of the world game's greats and while his effort was tireless, it was the scrum, maul and one well-worked strike move that did the damage. The fact that Italy produced the most cohesive piece of backs play in the game - for Luke McLean's try - was testament to their improvement and also the hammering dished out to the visitors at close-quarters.
Ireland's young guns will be better for the experience. They will have taken on board the pressure of a tournament match, rather than a tour game in North America or a November run against a touring side, and this familiarity is going to prove vital in the coming months, along with the support of the squad's senior personnel.
There is much work to be done this week and France will not be in a forgiving mood come round two. Win against Marc Lievremont's Jekyll and Hyde team and the talk of a Grand Slam decider will be on the lips of fans everywhere.
To look at the title after a result like this may seem bizarre, but such is the nature of the Six Nations. Get over the line, by any means necessary. It does help to have a few lads knocking round who've bottled the winning habit, too, following the exploits of two seasons ago.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Huw Baines is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.
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