If the first-half performance Ireland produced against Italy on Saturday is a guide, one can only imagine what catastrophes would have occurred during an opening 40 minutes at Stade de France.
That Ireland ran out with a five tries to one victory over the Italians, ending a sequence of three home defeats at the Aviva Stadium, was vital to Declan Kidney’s hopes of gathering momentum ahead of another French trip on Sunday.
Yet the head coach readily acknowledged a repeat of the first half will cost Ireland dearly at a stadium where Irish memories of victory are taking on something of a golden oldie feel.
This was Ireland’s first action since that dispiriting opening defeat at home to Wales and, although no can guess what might have been, the thought that Ireland could have been as scrappy as they were against the Italians is enough to send a shiver down the backs of Irish supporters.
Conceding a penalty 63 seconds into the game, when Mike Ross was pinged by referee Craig Joubert for not rolling away, hinted at the return of some aggression to the breakdown missing against Wales but also handed Italy the first of four penalty opportunities which would have put a different complexion on a tight game if scored.
Ireland played too much rugby deep in their half, and conceded penalties at the breakdowns. That they did not pay the price was down to Italy’s fly-half Tobias Botes, whose kicking cost the visitors 12 points.
And when Kearney tried running out of his 22, his pass to Sexton was misread and it took Ireland’s fly-half to haul down Alberto Sgarbi to prevent a try.
It was the start of a catalogue of errors that led to a deserved try for the Italians. The try-saving tackle had also produced a penalty but Sexton’s kick to touch did not get the Irish out of their 22 and there followed a botched lineout from which Robert Barbieri thundered to the line. Botes, eluding a Trimble tackle, fed Sergio Parisse, one of five unmarked men, to run behind the posts for a try even his fly-half could not fail to convert.
That passage of play summed up all of Ireland’s problems that did not involve the breakdown and France will be altogether less forgiving in exacting their punishment. That slow start will be running through Declan Kidney’s mind in the days ahead, as thoughts of a repeat against France haunt him.
Asked if a repeat of that slow start was his main concern heading back to Stade de France, Kidney replied in the affirmative but was optimistic it would not occur.
“Yes, it is,” he said.
“Against Wales that put us under pressure. Today it put us under pressure.
“This time we learned. You’re hoping to carry that learning into next week too. I’d like to think we got a lot more right today than we got wrong. That’s why when we lose we don’t try to get too despondent and we won’t be getting too carried away now, there’s definitely work to be done.”
France will have a day less to prepare for the rescheduled fixture but an extra 24 hours’ work will have to be countered by the World Cup finalists gathering momentum after playing the two weakest teams in the championship.
“They will be [in better shape than three weeks ago] because it will be their third match,” Kidney said. “France, you know they’re not the worst team in the world to get first up. I suppose if I had them first up I’d be complaining as well but they do usually get better as the tournament goes on.”
Ireland supporters will be hoping the same applies to their team. Five tries in any Test match is a laudable achievement and they were all finished very well. The others were all the result of high-tempo rugby played at an intensity required to beat the best teams but painfully lacking for long periods.
Scrum-half Conor Murray came in for some stick in the post-match analysis and it was not his finest hour but he did provide quick ball for Ireland’s first two tries. He gave Keith Earls the space with an early pass after Jonny Sexton had sucked in defenders and then fed Gordon D’Arcy promptly just before half-time, who moved it along for Rob Kearney to scoop over a defender and on to the outstanding Stephen Ferris and then Tommy Bowe to finish in the corner.
Eoin Reddan replaced Murray and there was considerable increase in purpose and zip from the Leinster scrum-half, his speedy recycling to Sexton allowed Bowe to finish off sustained pressure on the Italian line.
In fact, Kidney’s use of replacements made a big impact. Both Donnacha Ryan and debutant Peter O’Mahony brought aggression to a previously misfiring lineout and breakdown, and Court grabbed his first try with a powerful drive. It was clearly the desired response after captain Paul O’Connell gathered his pack for a forwards-only ‘chat’ on the eve of the game.
The introduction of Fergus McFadden and Ronan O’Gara, for Earls and D’Arcy respectively, also allowed for some welcome experimentation in the backline.
Ireland finished the game not just with a runaway try from Andrew Trimble but Sexton at inside centre and Bowe just outside him as Kidney faces into three more Tests.
But it will not get any easier than this and while Paris is neither the place nor the time for experimentation, this French side is not the team to switch off against for 40 minutes.
Scorers for Ireland: Tries: Bowe (two), Earls, Trimble, Court. Cons: Sexton (four). Pens: Sexton (three).
Scorers for Italy: Tries: Parisse. Con: Botes. Pen: Botes
IRELAND: R Kearney; T Bowe, K Earls, G D’Arcy, A Trimble; J Sexton, C Murray; C Healy, R Best, M Ross; P O’Connell (capt), D O’Callaghan; S Ferris, S O’Brien, J Heaslip.
Replacements: E Reddan for Murray (54), D Ryan for O’Callaghan (59), P O’Mahony for O’Brien (59), F McFadden for Earls (68), R O’Gara for D’Arcy (70), T Court for Healy (70), S Cronin for Best (70).
ITALY: A Masi; G Venditti, T Benvenuti, A Sgarbi, L McLean; T Botes, E Gori; M Rizzo, L Ghiraldini, L Cittadini; Q Geldenhuys, M Bortolami; A Zanni, R Barbieri, S Parisse (capt).
Replacements: K Burton for Botes (59), A Pavanello for Geldenhuys (59), S Favaro for Barbieri (63), G Canale for Sgarbi (63), F Staibano for Cittadini (68), F Semenzato for Gori (72), T D’Apice for Ghiraldini (72)
Referee: C Joubert (South Africa).