To their credit, Warren Gatland’s men pulled off yet another win away from home at the death against England in Twickenham, when it looked as if they might be pipped at the post.
That type of thing doesn’t happen by accident. Wales have discovered the art of winning tight contests, a trait which tends to define champion teams.
Ireland entered their contest against Italy with many questions hanging over them and after the predictable early examination from an ever willing Italian side, put a clear marker down to highlight the vast chasm that exists between these two sides.
In the opening half, Ireland played with the nervousness and anxiety of a side trying to prove something to themselves as much as those on the periphery.
As a result, they put themselves under unnecessary pressure and played to the shortcomings of a limited international side. If you play in the right areas of the field and deny Italy the opportunity of playing off your mistakes, then the Azzurri have very little going for them.
You cannot expect to be a force at international level unless you have consistency and direction at half back. Italy, despite credible advances in so many aspects of their game, remain hamstrung by this fundamental principal. For 14 seasons, three players, David Humphreys, Ronan O’Gara and Jonny Sexton have held the cherished No 10 Irish jersey, with one driving the other to new heights, as we saw again on Saturday.
How the Italians would love such a scenario. Over the last six encounters between these two sides, encompassing five in the Six Nations championship and October’s World Cup clash in Dunedin, Italy have started with six different players at out-half.
Tobias Botes, a scrum-half by trade, became Italy’s seventh different option on Saturday but unfortunately made as much impression as Ramiro Pez, Andrea Masi, Luke McLean, Craig Gower, Kris Burton and Luciano Orquera before him.
Masi and McLean were both on board again on Saturday but restored to more familiar surroundings and it will only be a matter of time before Botes, a decent rugby player, seeks the sanctuary of the No 9 jersey. While not quite in the calamitous nature of the abortive switch of Mauro Bergamasco from the back row to scrum half in Twickenham in 2009, the Botes selection was never going to work.
Likewise, half partner Edoardo Gori was so limited that Sergio Parisse lost all confidence in him after making a trademark break from the back of an attacking scrum 15 metres from the Irish line only to find his No 9 absent without leave when he looked to make a potential try-scoring offload. It summed up Italy’s shortcomings.
That Ireland exposed those deficiencies to the full is both promising and exciting; once they learn to play to their strengths, then they will be a very difficult team to beat.
Unfortunately their game management was poor in that opening half as they tried to do too much from deep in their own territory and played into Italian hands.
That Ireland had two tries before the break was down to the fact that when they were offered kickable penalties in the Italian 22 they instead had the confidence to kick to the corners and work off attacking lineouts.
While the Italians were organised enough to repel the initial onslaught, they had no answer to the ability of the Irish to recycle and retain possession through several phases which inevitably created overlaps out wide for Keith Earls and Tommy Bowe to capitalise on.
It took Ireland a long time to recognise that territory was the key to success. Their conversion rate from visits to the Italian 22 was spectacular. Rugby is a simple game, and sometimes in this professional era that tends to be lost in the quest for excellence.
Ireland’s kicking game was far superior to that against Wales in recent outings with every bomb measured to give the excellent Bowe a chance of regaining possession. Jonny Sexton, apart altogether from an impeccable kicking display that delivered seven from eight from placed balls, had a very good game and reopened the debate about the potential of playing alongside Ronan O’Gara by finishing the game at inside centre.
Outside him in midfield during that impressive closing period was Bowe in a formation that offers all kinds of possibilities. If Declan Kidney sees no future in this exciting combination then he shouldn’t tease us with the contemplation of the possibilities.
If Ireland are to have any chance of winning in Paris on Sunday then they need to be bold. Rob Kearney was electric on Saturday and showed the way forward with a series of inspirational counterattacks from deep. It is up to those around him to create more from those searing breaks. Likewise Bowe looked menacing when operating off his wing in broken play in a very positive second half performance that saw Ireland build on the foundations laid in a workmanlike opening 40 minutes.
Kidney made maximum use of his bench when introducing Donnacha Ryan, Peter O’Mahony and especially Eoin Reddan as a collective force after 53 minutes and the shift in tempo generated by the introduction of that trio lifted Ireland to a level beyond Italian capabilities.
The key now is to carry that momentum forward into the three remaining championship contests.
This weekend, Ireland travel to Paris in a better mental state than for the abortive journey a fortnight ago while France reverted to the worst habits of their recent World Cup campaign despite a six-point victory over Scotland at Murrayfield. New coach Philippe Saint-André, after just two games in charge, has already seen evidence of the lack of confidence that wrecked the regime of his predecessor, the must maligned Marc Lièvremont.
Soft in defence and showing complete lack of physicality at the breakdown, France were there for the taking but Scotland were simply not good enough to close the deal. The worry now is that Saint Andre will reintroduce the likes of William Servat, Lionel Nallet and Vincent Debaty which will have a massive effect on their set-piece proficiency.