Sunday, February 05, 2006

Ireland 26 Italy 16

Dante and Virgil on the post-match session in Temple Bar last night
Any Italians in Lansdowne Road yesterday with slightly twisted perspectives on the world may have found some sort of solace or comfort in the fact that the greatest poem in the Italian language concerns a trip to Hell. Even still, the torments recorded by Dante on his visit the Inferno with Virgil as his guide must surely have waned in comparison to the torments and injustices visited on the Italians at Lansdowne Road yesterday. Ireland should have been beaten by the finest Italian performance since Diego Dominguez used to stand off the scrum for his adopted country; instead, Eddie O'Sullivan cashed in his Get Out of Jail card while his opposite number, Pierre Berbizier, was left to mourn what might have been.

Italy have been participants in the Six Nations Championship for five or six years now, but it's still fairly clear that the Azurri are regarded as being a little below the salt in comparison to the home - British Isles, darling - nations or France, who have rubbed the home nations' noses in it sufficiently often to count as the real deal. Because Italy have struggled to come up to speed in the competition and because the Italians do not have the same history of rugby as the other countries, they've been seen as fall guys. Cannon fodder. Practice material. If it were boxing, Italy would be tomatoes - the bums, has-beens and never-weres that now try to survive by offering sparring practice to up and coming fighters. Yesterday at Lansdowne Road the tomatoes put Ireland on the canvas but they just couldn't close the deal.

Scandalous referring didn't do them any favours either. Elderly readers whose antennae still quiver at the words "Roger Quittenton" will have some idea of what the Italians must be feeling tonight. The English referee, Mr David Pearson, awarded Ireland two tries of the most dubious nature - in the first, it looked as though debutant hooker Jerry Flannery knocked on before he grounded, which should be no try, penalty Italy. In the second, TV replays showed that Mauro Bergamasco, the Italian flanker, held Tommy Bowe in the tackle and prevented him from grounding the ball, where the decision is no try, scrum five.

And as if giving Ireland a ten point start wasn't bad enough - Ireland's winning margin was ten points at the end, you know - Mr Pearson clearly bottled it when it came to sin-binning Brian O'Driscoll for illegal and reckless use of the boot. A ruck had developed in midfield about five minutes before the half. O'Driscoll steamed in, leaped on the back on a prone Italian player, and raked him in the classical prancing horse manner. The Italians were rightly outraged by this, one of them so much so that he swung for O'Driscoll. A small Donnybrook broke out then, with fists flying, and the referee must have thought, ah well, there's a pair of them in it. Unfortunately, no. O'Driscoll was clearly in the wrong, and should have marched.

To rub salt in the wound, Mr Pearson then binned the Italian fly-half Ramiro Pez for a late tackle immediately after not binning O'Driscoll for dangerous play. The Italians must have wondered what they had to do to even get a free kick off this man - must one of their number sleep with the fishes in the foul Liffey waters to even get the put-in to the next scrum?

The RTÉ panel were a little squeamish when it came to identifying the O'Driscoll incident for what it was, an open and shut case for a yellow card. An Spailpín Fánach is second to no-one in his admiration for Brian O'Driscoll but even Homer nods - O'Driscoll did what he oughtn't, and should have marched.

Irish coach Eddie O'Sullivan now has even greater things to worry about. If the Irish looked like rabbits caught in Italian headlights today, what will happen them in the Killing Fields of Paris? What does Eddie do? Does he make wholesale changes? Will Johnny O'Connor come back? If he does, who goes? There is a rumour at time of writing that Simon Easterby was bitten by an Italian, who clearly does not live up to that nation's gourmand reputation - does this mean that Wallace will be shifted around to six, O'Connor restored to seven and Leamy left at eight? Or will Eddie and his selectors have to take their spades to the graveyard of discarded internationals and dig up that old dog for the hard, hard, Parisian road, Anthony Foley?

What about the front row of the scrum? The misfortunate Flannery had a baptism of fire today, but then Ireland's decision to call complex lineout calls when the debutant had the friendly face of Munster team-mate Paul O'Connell standing at two in the lineout at all times was puzzling, to say the least.

Maybe if Ramiro Pez, who had been outstanding in the first seventy-one minutes of the game, hadn't choked so badly on a kickable penalty in the seventy-second, the dauntless Italians would have been able to press on against the fifteen Irish and the referee for a famous victory. Heads would certainly have to roll in that inst. But Eddie and Ireland dodged the bullet, and O'Sullivan may be able to pick the same team again. That said, Eddie would certainly need to arrange for putting gunpowder in the Irish tea before sending them out in Paris. Such an act of outrageous larceny against the brave Italians can't have done much, karma-wise, for the rest of the season. An Spailpín Fánach gets that awful feeling that the writing is on the wall for Ireland in Paris, and that the moving finger has spelled out G-U-I-L-L-O-T-I-N-E.

CORRECTION: It's been pointed to your humble chronicler that in the instance of the attacking side knocking on at the line, á la Jerry Flannery, the correct decision is not a penalty, but a five metre scrum with a defensive put-in. I've looked it up and my friend is right, I am wrong. I'm correcting it now and all I can say in my defence, your honour, is that Spailpíní Fánacha are every bit in need of the television match replay official as international referees.

Sport, rugby, Six Nations, Ireland, Italy