First Wales, then England. Now Italy.
Run your thumb along the line tracing Ireland’s last three outings against fellow tier one nations and the portents aren’t exactly favourable ahead of Sunday’s Pool D heavyweight bout against the French in Cardiff.
The opening World Cup performances against Canada and Romania had restored confidence dented by those two final warm-ups against the Welsh and English, but they now seem to be far less relevant in the greater scheme of things.
Add in the stuttering victory over Scotland in the second of their pre-season Tests at the Aviva Stadium, and Joe Schmidt’s Ireland have to go back to their first leg-stretcher against Wales in Cardiff on August 8 for a performance that cut the mustard against serious opposition.
And even that was against a below-par host team. Circumstances, personnel, venues, and the countless individual snapshots that make up any game have all varied dramatically in those encounters and yet the thread meshing them all together is one of an Irish team that seems to have misplaced its mojo.
“I don’t think so,” counters Dave Kearney. “The last two games were very different against Canada and Romania. Some games just go like that. Some games are quite tight with not much space and some games there is loads of space and you are throwing the ball around. This was one of those days where there just wasn’t that much space.”
Kearney’s day spoke volumes for that. Little ball came his way on Sunday at the Olympic Stadium. The few times he was seen moving with ball in hand were, for the most part, those instances when he migrated in off his wing in search of work as Italy frustrated their more-favoured opponents.
It made for an unfulfilling occasion, one in which Ireland failed to fire on the pitch, with a crowd of over 53,000 large-ly muted around it. Kearney sensed what he termed as the “strange enough atmosphere”, but didn’t lend it any material significance to what transpired.
“I suppose it is job done. We have qualified for the quarters. It wasn’t the prettiest of games. Everyone found it very difficult to get into it as it was so stop-start. Probably just once we got ourselves into positions there were knock-ons and forced errors and things like that held us back.”
It made for a butt-clenching finish, especially when the excellent Peter O’Mahony received a yellow card with eight minutes still to go, but the Leinster back claimed not to have felt any sense of impending doom as Italy looked to turn the screw.
“No, I don’t think so. From the edge, I didn’t feel like we were losing control, even when we were down to 14 men at the end. I still felt then that we were going to hold on. Defensively, out wide, I didn’t feel like we were that stretched throughout the game. In saying that, we probably didn’t stretch them out wide that much either. There was no real panic. Johnny (Sexton) just kept putting ball in behind them, although we probably did let ourselves down a bit. We gave away a few penalties and let them back into it.”
Cue France. Philippe Saint-Andre’s squad was ensconced in their Welsh retreat for over two days by the time Ireland reached theirs yesterday, adding to the theory they have made up for lost ground on an Irish side that has had their number every time since 2011.
Yet Kearney feels Ireland are but a minor improvement away from something big. “We are up against top opposition and it will be a different game again, I would imagine. We know how good France are and how they like to throw the ball around. We have been putting ourselves in good positions and if we just hold onto the ball this time it could be a different story.”
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