Ireland survive a bloody Valentine's test
February 15, 2009
Italy's Sergio Parisse hammers Ireland's David Wallace with a crunching tackle © Getty Images
Ireland joined Wales at the top of the Six Nations table after starring in a re-make of the infamous slasher movie 'My Bloody Valentine'.
The 1980s horror movie had censors scrambling to cut the more gratuitous violence and a similar but less entertaining task awaits Ireland coach Declan Kidney and his Italy counterpart Nick Mallett after a bruising but dour Championship clash.
It wasn't pretty and despite the recent Valentines Day celebration there was no love lost between the two sides. Far from it. But Ireland weathered a storm and are unlikely to face sterner physical test of their Championship credentials in their remaining three clashes against England, Scotland and Wales.
If Declan Kidney's side had any doubt that they would be subjected to a bruising challenge then they were issued a brutal reminder in the first minute when Italy fullback Andrea Masi smashed his opposite number Rob Kearney with a high tackle. The Italian was on his way to the sin-bin with just 46 seconds on the clock. It was a cheap shot, maybe premeditated, and he was arguably lucky only to see yellow.
If Italy's ploy was to unsettle their visitors with a blatant piece of intimidation then it had some success. Ireland were knocked off their stride before they had found it and as a result were a shadow of the side that had beaten France the previous week. Italy ran with plenty of purpose from the off and when they didn't have the ball they spoilt what momentum Ireland mustered and forced plenty of errors. The signs were good for an entertaining and colourful clash.
Italy were a completely different side with a specialist scrum-half - Paul Griffen - in place from the start. It's amazing what you can achieve when you have a scrum-half who knows how to play in the position. Italy were always going to come out fighting having been mauled against England last time out and were obviously determined to prove they were no joke - despite their coach's attempts at humour with his selection of flanker Mauro Bergamasco at scrum-half last weekend.
They rattled the Irish early on took a deserved lead through the boot of fly-half Luke McLean but were stung by a breakaway try from Tommy Bowe against the run of play. By this stage the Italians had already offered a stiffer physicial challenge than the French had managed for the entire 80 minutes the week before.
But the hosts let themselves down with some sloppy infringements and unforced errors. They are a good enough side on their day to more than match all of their Six Nations rivals when they play by the rules. But they slip into old habits too easily and should instead have the confidence in their own ability.
Further pressure from Italy continued to rattle Ireland and when Ronan O'Gara was charged down he was forced into the professional foul to prevent the score. He was rightly sent to the bin and wind-up-merchant-in-chief Martin Castrogiovanni was there to offer a word of consolation.
Those costly Italian errors saw them reduced to 14-men before the end of the half with Savatore Perugini given his marching orders. They rallied defensively under great pressure from the Irish and looked like they had weathered the storm before Luke Fitzgerald crossed just before the break.
The second half was largely a woeful spectacle to rank up their with Italy's dour clash with England. They'll be no-one clambering for DVD copies of this game and you feel a little sympathy for those analysts that will have to sit through it all over again.
Italy were unable to reclaim the initiative back from Ireland with Jamie Heaslip producing a clean break similar to that he conjured against France to put David Wallace in for a score. But sadly moments of creativity were few and far between for much of a disjointed half.
So stop-start was the action that the TV commentators were lost for words and fearing the casual fans switching off in their millions, the BBC's Nick Mullins assured viewers, "It does get better on occasions." He didn't really make a convincing case.
Scrums and lineouts were a mess as fatigue began to set in following a physically-draining contest. But where there was weariness there was space allowing Ireland to put some gloss on the scoreline. Fitzgerald's quick-thinking triggered a nice exchange with Gordon D'Arcy that led to the winger's second try and then skipper Brian O'Driscoll intercepted a loose pass before racing away to score his country's fifth try.
But by the end you sensed that depite their superiority, that they had earnt the hard way, Ireland were ready to call it a day and lick their wounds.
The result, and the fall-off in performance, will provide further food for thought for Italy Mallett. His side face what will likely be a Wooden Spoon decider against Scotland at Murrayfield next time out and must address their lack of consistency before then.
With Wales and France both still to visit Rome, Italy could still have quite a say in this year's Championship and that will be incentive enough for them as they re-group.
For all their possession and spirit they failed to trouble the Irish ry line but they have enough about them to conjure at least one upset in this Championship.
Ireland will welcome the break in Championship action as they try and piece themselves together. Poor Paddy Wallace looked like he may be needing the services of a plastic surgeon let alone a week's holiday when he hobbled out the game. What counts for them is that their Grand Slam dream remains intact but their title aspirations are sure to be tested yet further against England at Croke Park next time out.
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