Ronan O’Gara’s place kicking was the best aspect of Ireland’s 29-11 win over Italy at Croke Park.
One thing was evident very early on from a southern hemisphere perspective: the law interpretations that refs have been instructed to police at ruck and scrum time to allow for open play in the Super 14 won’t be employed by northern officials. This resulted in David Wallace and the rest of the Irish pack dominating the breakdown and the usual aimless kicking battle ensued, which made this a bore of a match.
Surprisingly the Grand Slam and Six Nations Champions got sucked into the kicking game, even with a comfortable lead in the second half. This was exactly what the Azzurri wanted to keep the match a dour one, as they didn’t have the attacking arsenal to worry the hosts.
Despite Ireland and loosehead Cian Healy – who took a pounding from Ben Alexander and BJ Botha in last year’s November internationals – being dominated at scrum-time, referee Jerome Poite surprisingly awarded the first penalty,which O’Gara slotted. O’Gara was dropped for their last Test against the Springboks, but with Jonathan Sexton injured, he produced his usual usual assured place-kicking game in securing 16 points.
The Irish continued their good run when Jamie Heaslip finished off a team try from multiple phases, and then again Italy found themselves on the wrong side of referee Poite. The Frenchman harshly yellow-carded Gonzalo Garcia for a ‘spike’ tackle on Ireland captain Brian O’Dricoll, which saw the hosts put on 10 points in as many minutes.
While the Italian scrum was dominating, the Irish lineout again claimed another victim as scrumhalf Tomas O’Leary benefited from a poor throw to claim his try.
Italy wing Kaine Robertson brought one back before the break as he charged down another errant Rob Kearney kick, but this was as good as it got for the rest of the match for the visitors.
Both sides traded penalties in the second half, while Nick Mallett’s men did most of the defending as the 70 000 crowd grew frustrated.
While the Irish had most of the ball and attacking intent, their finishing and intensity were both lacking. Facing France next Saturday at Stade de France will give a much clearer indication of where Ireland lie in terms of defending their northern crown.
By Grant Ball