They were winners against France, they threatened to shock England but Italy saved their best until last as they blew Ireland away with a 22-15 victory. Captain Sergio Parisse, Alessandro Zanni and Andrea Masi continued their good form with excellent displays as they secured their first-ever victory over Ireland. The scores were close at half-time with just three points separating the sides but Italy were well on top. Again, their indiscipline and lack of composure cost them on more than one occasion as they squandered good attacking positions but they came through in the second half as Gio Venditti went over from close range. Italy fully deserved their victory over an Ireland side crippled by injury and an alarming loss of form. Once again it was Parisse who was at the fore front of everything good in their display. The powerful No8 showed deft hands when off-loading and his runs resulted in metres gained every time. For so long he has been the sole threat in this Italian side but he is no longer, as their pack has increasingly become more dominant and their back line has a genuine scoring threat with the likes of Masi and Luke McLean.
While Ireland have had a poor Six Nations and only avoided the wooden spoon on points difference, they were hindered by an injury list that would cripple most teams. With the likes of Paul O’Connell, Tommy Bowe, Stephen Ferris, Jonathan Sexton and Simon Zebo the biggest casualties, it is no wonder Ireland haven’t reached the heights their performance against Wales suggested. But against Italy their luck got even worse as they were saw both Keith Earls and Luke Marshall forced off through injury in the first half. While that was bad enough, one of their replacements Luke Fitzgerald was then forced off shortly after coming on and Ireland were forced into an unusual change. With all their backs off the bench already, they had to bring on Iain Henderson onto the flank and shift Peter O’Mahony from the blind side onto the wing. Such unfortunate handicaps will impair any side but the fact they had to take such drastic measures in more than one match, with debuts handed out in big games, shows how head coach Declan Kidney hasn’t planned for the future and he could pay for it with his job.
For Italy and their new head coach Jacques Brunel, two victories over France and Ireland respectively represents great progress. They have built upon making Rome a fortress for visiting teams and if they do lose it’s a close game and their opponents will be run close. They lost to Wales without their talismanic Parisse, and while they are beginning to become less reliant on their captain, he is still a very big loss. However, away from home, they lost both their fixtures and delivered two contrasting performances. Against Scotland, with the expectation that they could win, the Azzurri delivered a poor performance and lost. But at Twickenham, they were inspired and were desperately unlucky to lose. Italy must now deal with the burden of expectation as they can clearly beat any team in this competition but having been so used to the underdogs tag, they must realise that people will expect them to grind out victories. Another factor to consider is that with Argentina creating a professional team to potentially compete in the Super 15 competition, the influx of Argentinians into Italian rugby may begin to end so they must begin to bring through young Italians to continue their long-term growth.
Ireland appear to have come to the end of an era with players like Ronan O’Gara and Brian O’Driscoll edging towards international retirement. With influential locks Paul O’Connell and Donncha O’Callaghan beset by injury and surely considering their futures, the next few years for Ireland appear uncertain. Such big names are hard to replace and head coach Kidney has done a poor job in ensuring a smooth transition. A tricky tie at Murrayfield is not the best environment to give a fly-half and centre their first Irish appearances let alone starts and their inexperience showed. Rumours that Kidney’s tenure could be coming to an end continue to persist and he admitted he is considering his position following their surprising loss. It appears unlikely that he will continue but Ireland must be aware that change can’t happen instantly. They need to nurture everyone back to full fitness and create a team ethic similar to that of England and Wales. The benefit of such a poor Six Nations means that the majority of their side will be available for their summer tour, where they should look to bring in new talent and worry about performances rather than results and begin to rebuild their squad for an assault on the 2015 World Cup.
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