Harsh reality for Conor O’Shea as the magnitude of his task becomes evident
By Phil Rice
The difficulty of Italian Coach Conor O’Shea’s mission to make Italy a competitive force in international rugby, was clearly outlined at the weekend when Ireland trounced his team by a record score.
Ireland controlled every phase of the one-sided encounter as new calls for promotion and relegation to the Six Nations were voiced. The reality is Italian rugby has been on a downward spiral since the demise of such stalwarts as Martin Castrogiovanni, the Bergamasco brothers, Alessandro Troncon and other stars, whose qualities disguised the lack of depth in their country’s rugby resources.
Georgia’s claims to be permitted to enter the Holy Grail of the top table of European international rugby, are well documented. They have easily won the second tier of European rugby for the past five seasons. Many of their best players strut their stuff among the leading French and English club sides.
One up, one down
Italy have carefully avoided facing them for fear of losing and fuelling the cry for a ‘one up one down’ relegation system to be introduced.
O’Shea has been asking for time to rebuild the game in Italy from the ground up. Clearly this is the best route for his beleaguered troops, but the pain of repeated public humiliation is becoming unbearable. The frustration on the face of his only true quality player, Sergio Parisse, was all too clear for everyone to see at the weekend.
The misery is set to continue with a visit to Twickenham next on the agenda. It may be time the Six Nations committee rethink their strategy about the future involvement of the Azzurri at this level at least in the short-term.
Players and spectators alike can only stand so much punishment. O’Shea commented after Saturday’s humiliation,”We are a proud people sitting up here and we don’t like days like this.”
Maybe it is time for Italy and Georgia to enter their national teams into the Pro12 although the travel aspect may be daunting for the Georgians.
As for Ireland, they had their own wounds to heal and they were happy to dispel the pain of Murrayfield by running in nine tries. CJ Stander duly collected his umpteenth man of the match award with his hat-trick of tries. No Irish team has ever had two players scoring hat-tricks in the same match, as substitute Craig Gilroy completed his hat-trick cameo during his second half spell.
It was important for the Irish players to re-establish their confidence after the disappointment of the Scottish match. Joe Schmidt was particularly pleased with the performance of fly-half Paddy Jackson, who equalled the Six Nations record of Jonny Wilkinson’s nine out of nine successful conversions. Schmidt said after the game,”Paddy has put his hand up to say,’well Johnny Sexton shouldn’t be an automatic choice.’”
However Schmidt went on to say that he expects Sexton to be fit for the French game on Saturday week and,”Johnny has proven that he can come straight back into a side and hit the ground running, he’s done that for us on other occasions.”
The entire Irish backrow was outstanding at the weekend and Sean O’Brien came through a second game injury free! He is a key player as the opposition will get tougher from here and he is likely to improve as he gets more games under his belt.
Keith Earls had his demons to expel after the Scottish match and he scored a quick-fire brace of tries to set the ball rolling on Saturday. He is likely to face competition from the fit-again Andrew Trimble for the French game. Trimble’s stronger defence may be the decisive factor in selection.
Despite Ireland’s loss to Scotland they lie in second place in the table due to earning the first ever try bonus point in the Six Nations. France have turned their fortunes around this season and the game at the Aviva next week promises to be a belter.