ON THE FACE of it things could not have gone much better for Declan Kidney and Ireland.
Italy provided Ireland with the perfect warm-up for their return to Paris but conceded enough scores to boost the confidence of several players.
Tommy Bowe, Andrew Trimble and Keith Earls were try-scorers and Jonny Sexton put in an almost perfect kicking display off the tee. Paul O’Connell and Stephen Ferris were the pick of the forwards and Rob Kearney eased back into the world-class bracket of full-backs.
Peter O’Mahony has been blooded at international level, Eoin Reddan will be satisfied with his impact off the bench, and Tom Court burrowed over with his first try in green.
Kidney was able to take off Sean O’Brien and Keith Earls with plenty of time remaining and injuries, apart from Kearney’s suspected groin-strain, were scarce.
Despite the sense of content in the Irish camp, Italy were only a reliable place-kicker away from having the home side in real trouble. Tobias Botes missed three penalties, only one of which could qualify as difficult, and butchered a simple drop-goal attempt.
Put Ronan O’Gara in an Italian jersey – he already has the Spaghetti Western hair – and Ireland could have been 22-17 down after 45 minutes.
A couple of hangovers remained from the Welsh defeat and must be cut out if Ireland are to mount a series Six Nations challenge. Ireland tried to hit the wings after less than three or four phases on at least 10 occasions and were rarely rewarded as passes went astray or into Italian arms.
A spectacular tackle or catch was often rendered meaningless by a bad line-out or refusal by a tackled player to release the ball.
Irish players spoke before both Six Nations matches so far about bringing intensity to the field but level heads will be needed against France to turn a highlight reel moment into a game-changer.
Dimitri Yachvilli and Morgan Parra can both pull off impersonations of flawless goal-kickers on their day so silly penalties will also need to be eradicated. With Gert Smal away from the training ground due to problems with his eyesight, Munster forwards coach Anthony Foley will need to drill home the dual message of passion and discipline this week.
It is unlikely that Kidney will make any major changes for the rescheduled match at Stade de France. The starting 15 shall be asked for another major effort before re-enforcements line-up against Scotland the following week.
Two areas, however, should be looked at. It is unfortunate to see Sean O’Brien neutered by the Number 7 jersey. He is doing a commendable job and worked well with O’Connell at the Aviva to plunder ball at the breakdown but he is sorely missed with ball in hand and charging up-field. O’Mahony could start, with O’Brien as a menacing first change in the back-row, but it would be an enormous gamble.
Conor Murray was overshadowed by Mike Phillips in the Wales game and was hesitant at times against Italy. A Sexton-Reddan combination would set the backs in motion quicker against the French.
Kidney denied that Murray had been withdrawn on 53 minutes for tactical reasons, he said:
“Conor has been playing 60 minutes regularly for Munster. Half-backs are funny that way as they often catch all the blame or the glory. The backs were getting a good supply of balls for the first 55 minutes (Conor was on). It was a good team performance by two scrum-halves.”
The clamour for Donncha Ryan to replace Donnacha O’Callaghan in the second-row will rumble on this week but Kidney seems likely to ask the elder of the two to give him another 60 minutes of scurrying and scrapping in the second-row.
One thing is for certain – Ireland travel to France with more players closer to recognisable form than they did on that frosty February weekend a fortnight ago.