Peter Jackson: Can Conor O’Shea rescue Italy?

The Italians are clearing the decks for their Irish saviour, a Munster man whose father won three All-Ireland football finals with Kerry in the 50s.
Peter Jackson: Can Conor O’Shea rescue Italy?

Conor O’Shea is due to inherit a team not just in bits but in some danger of ending up among the Roman ruins as a relic of the Six Nations. His imminent arrival coincides with a growing clamour for Georgia to be given an overdue shot at promotion to the promised land.

Whether Tblisi is to replace Rome among the elite of European rugby capitals will be determined, for better or worse, by what kind of a difference O’Shea can make. After years of politely stating their case, the Georgians are not so much knocking on the door as hammering on it.

If their most famous or notorious son were still around, Dublin would have been brought to a standstill by Soviet tanks parked outside the Six Nations’ headquarters on one side of St Stephen’s Green. Joe Stalin wasn’t one to hang around for democracy to run its course.

O’Shea, armed with a four-year contract. will know the score. Italian beatings of record dimension inflicted by Ireland and Wales on successive Saturdays make this their sixth Six Nations whitewash the worst of all, as measured by tries conceded over the five matches — 29.

That their painful finish coincided with Georgia winning the Second Division title, the European Nations’ Cup, for the sixth time in a row makes Italy’s position that bit more precarious. Having won a whole host of new friends at the World Cup, the Georgians blitzed their No 1 challenger, Romania, 38-9.

They did so at the 55,000 capacity Dinamo Arena in Tblisi before a larger crowd (52,342) than watched Ireland-Scotland. ‘’Rugby,’’ according to the country’s Kiwi coach Milton Haig, ‘’Is the most popular sport in Georgia.’’ Support on that scale suggests that Haig is not overstating the case. While the ‘Lelos’ rewarded their fans with six unanswered tries, Italy shipped six against Wales in the second half alone.

There were extenuating circumstances and neutral hearts bled at the sight of an Italian team ravaged by recurring injury being thumped from pillar to post. In a ruthless business where sympathy gets short shrift, a second nine-try mismatch on the bounce will push the promotion-relegation issue higher up the Six Nations agenda. The nettle will have to be grasped sooner than later, just as the battered Italians were confronted by it in Cardiff on Saturday night. As one of rugby’s nobility, Sergio Parisse ought to be above such matters but the old warrior made an impassioned plea for the Italian cause.

Having started by dismissing the question as “stupid”, he then realised it was nothing of the sort and fought the Italian corner as only he can. The idea, he argued, of Scotland, Ireland or France losing their place because of one bad season was “ridiculous”. But he also accepted the reality, that the stay of execution will not be indefinite, not with a new European power rising on the eastern front.

O’Shea’s first task, therefore, is to avert another whitewash next year and the doomsday scenario of a play-off decider against Mamuka Gorgodze and his band of brothers.

Bullish Jones sets sights on mighty All Blacks

Eddie Jones has achieved another first, presiding over an English Grand Slam without causing a diplomatic incident — no mean feat considering he had already offended Stoke City FC, the Johnny Sexton fan club and the Welsh Rugby Union.

His barbs at Wales hardly count, given that the English and their Celtic neighbours have co-existed in a permanent state of mutual antipathy since time began. Old Cyclops himself would have been hard pushed to begrudge England a triumph which, for once, they managed without upsetting their hosts any more than usual.

In winning their previous Slam, at Lansdowne Road in 2003, they managed to upset what felt like the whole of Ireland over Martin Johnson’s glowering refusal to budge after his England team lined up on the wrong side of the red carpet before being presented to the then President, Mary McAleese.

Other Grand Slam occasions had dissolved into embarrassment for England before and after Dublin 2003. In the chaotic aftermath of losing to an unfancied Wales at Wembley in 1999, Clive Woodward wound up facing a complaint from the Welsh Relations Council after a joke about the Welsh and sheep had backfired.

Twelve years later after another Slam vanished into thin air at Murrayfield, England under Matt Dawson failed to turn up to collect the Six Nations trophy from the Princess Royal. The English RFU had to issue a groveling apology for leaving Her Royal Highness standing alone in a Siberian wind waiting for Dawson to appear before giving it up as a bad job.

In delivering a Slam at the first attempt, ‘Fast Eddie’ has lived up to his name. He is the third coach to do so, emulating Warren Gatland with Wales in 2008 and, unforgettably, Declan Kidney with Ireland 12 months later.

What sets Jones apart is that he’s already talking about England going global and superseding the All Blacks. “We have the talent to beat them,” he says. “We can’t beat them now but we will.”

Storming finish boosts Ireland coffers

Ireland’s storming finish from fifth to third will increase their share of the prize money by more than €1m to €3m.

So much for the good news. On the debit side, they stand to lose about €250,000 as their share of stumping up the extra 1% of the pot to the Grand Slam winner.

As part of the deal, England are entitled to a seven-figure bonus which means that, like Ireland, the other four will have a similar sum deducted from their winnings.

England top crime count

England broke the law considerably more often than the rest over the course of Six Nations.

They conceded a grand total of 65 penalties, compared to Italy (52), Ireland (50), Wales (50), Scotland (46), France (44) and still came up smelling of roses, presumably because they were smarter or luckier in being penalised out of goalkicking range.

Bonus points irrelevant

The spasmodic call for bonus points is rolled out every so often when people have nothing better to do, like a Mexican Wave with numbers.

So what difference would the system have made had it been in operation over the last few weeks?

None. Ireland would have most bonus points — a losing one in Paris, four-try winning ones against Italy and Scotland. The final pecking order under bonus points would have been the same: England 21, Wales 16, Ireland 13, Scotland 10, France 8, Italy 1.

Game’s flawed priorities

World Rugby has been very quick to demand an explanation from the Six Nations for their failure to take punitive action against England prop Joe Marler for calling Samson Lee, a Welshman proud of his travelling heritage, “gypsy boy”. A pity that the game’s global governing body did not demand the same explanation of the same body for allowing France lock Yoann Maestri to escape scot-free after his brutal off-the-ball assault of Johnny Sexton in Paris. And they keep banging on about player-welfare.

The best and worst

Best solo try: Stuart Hogg for Scotland against Ireland.

Best collective try: Ireland’s nine-pass movement against Italy, finished off by Jamie Heaslip.

Best match: France-England.

Worst: France-Ireland.

Three forwards who played every minute: Heaslip, John Hardie, Taulupe Faletau.

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