Donal Lenihan’s hex warms us up for a mixed afternoon

Good guy, Donal Lenihan, and a fine analyst both in print and on TV, but don’t ever ask him if you’re looking well — and if you do and he tells you you’re the picture of health, then depart rapidly in several directions, writes Enda McEvoy.

Donal Lenihan’s hex warms us up for a mixed afternoon

All enquiries to poor Sean O’Brien.

There was the Tullow motorised vehicle prior to kick-off, going through the pre-match exercises, his rotten luck with injury apparently a thing of the past 15 months.

“Look at him,” urges Donal. “He’s in unbelievable physical shape.”

A few minutes later Tom McGurk brings us news of “a dramatic moment breaking” in the Eternal City. No, the Pope — Francis, not Brent — hasn’t suddenly been taken ill or anything.

Instead, it turns out that Sean O’Brien has done himself a mischief. There’s even a clip of it happening. He goes to ground during a handling routine, sits up, mouths something and touches the back of his left leg.

“Do you want to read that one for us, Brent?” Tom asks. Eh? Does Brent Pope possess hitherto unrevealed lipreading skills? And is about to repeat to an unsuspecting, clean-living nation the exact word that O’Brien mouthed? The RTÉ switchboard will go into meltdown. The Iona Institute will have a canary. Heads will undoubtedly roll.

Hold hard. It transpires, fortunately, that all Tom is doing is merely asking Brent to tell us what happened. Brent duly informs us that O’Brien has “tweaked a hamstring”. Phew. Heads remain unrolled. The RTÉ switchboard remains operational. But that’s O’Brien’s afternoon over before it started, with Tommy O’Donnell coming it at the eleventh hour and 59th minute to fill the No.7 jersey. Oh Donal.

As if Ireland didn’t have enough worries. George Hook has one in particular. It’s called Ian Keatley. “He has a very low strike rate as a kicker: that’s a fact. He’s a poor defender: that’s an observation. He’s an average club fly-half: that’s an opinion.”

It’s such a beautifully structured, perfectly balanced piece of rhetoric, worthy of Cicero or Obama, that one can only wonder how long George has had it in the oven.

Earlier Ronan O’Gara had been paying tribute to Paul O’Connell. “Massive intellectual knowledge, like George...” — oh dear God, does the sentence finish there? — “... said.”

Double phew. Losing Sean O’Brien had been bad enough. Hearing George Hook rhapsodised as the Einstein of the age would have been a bridge too far.

A turgid first half. Nine-three in the visitors’ favour at the break. Ronan nips in before George can get the chance to continue his jihad against Keatley, pointing out that the out-half has kicked three from three. “That’s what he’s there for.”

Not that Ireland have brought to Rome any works of art to compare to those left there by Michelangelo, Brunelleschi, Leonardo et al.

They’re “crashing and bashing”, Brent laments.

Eventually their pressure pays off in the form of two tries in three minutes a quarter of an hour from time. O’Donnell, the late replacement, may be no Simon Zebo but he shows a decent turn of foot nonetheless to run in the second of them. At the final whistle it’s 26-3 to Ireland. Given that Italy are always at their most obdurate in the early stages of the Six Nations, this is no bad outcome. Or is it?

Tom, mindful of the terms, conditions and potential points-difference disparities come tournament end, sniffs at “only two tries”.

Brent deems it “a mixed bag” and observes that Joe Schmidt will be disappointed with the number of mistakes.

Ronan comes to Keatley’s defence some more (“he did what he was in there to do”) by asserting that it takes eight to 10 matches for an out-half to adjust to international rugby.

George harrumphs that this was “a major rugby nation against a lowly rugby nation”. Next Saturday, he warns, will be different. “We’re playing a real rugby nation.”

Ah yes, next Saturday. Ireland v France at the Aviva. Johnny Sexton will be back, maybe Jamie Heaslip too.

Ireland will surely be better for having got the dirty oil out of their system in Rome. Just as long as they don’t let Donal Lenihan comment on the warm-up.

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