DONAL LENIHAN: Can Parisse’s outsiders summon one last stand?

Fear is Italy’s best friend for today’s clash, suggests Donal Lenihan.

Let’s call a spade a spade here. Italy have been shocking for some time now, a pale shadow of the side that Ireland and others found very difficult to subdue over a succession of Six Nations Championships in recent years. However they have been way off the pace in this World Cup to date.

Preparations for the tournament were suspended for a period when the players refused to train due to dissatisfaction over bonus payments. The FIR proposed a one-off bonus scheme based on their overall performance in the tournament, the players wanted a match-by-match scheme. Not exactly a ringing endorsement from the players as to their prospects.

Recent results have been really poor, none more so than a 47-7 trouncing by Scotland in Murrayfield only five weeks ago. Last Saturday, they barely got over the line against Canada (23-18) in a game the Canadians should have won.

Italian coach Jacques Brunel will leave his position after the tournament but his body language suggests that, not only is he in the departure lounge, he already has two feet on the steps of the plane. Even he admitted after last weekend’s disappointing showing that, if they didn’t get their act together, Ireland could embarrass them. All is not well in the Azzurri camp.

The Italians are a proud bunch, however, and there will be a recognition within the squad that if they don’t step up to the plate, it could be another long day. That fear factor could be Italy’s friend tomorrow. With only Romania left to play after this, the players know they will have to step up appreciably in terms of performance if they are to take anything from this World Cup.

In their tournament opener against France, they were typically obdurate for a period but, as ever, their discipline let them down before the French, playing well within themselves, stretched to a 32-10 win. Ireland would gladly accept that scoreline now.

Question now is, is their one last stand in this Italian squad? Shorn two of their most consistent backs in Andrea Masi and Luca Morisi due to injury, their back play has lacked direction and conviction, while Tommaso Allan is yet another in a long line of Italian out-half’s to look short of the mark at this level.

The loss of their experienced and combative hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini, who captained the side in the absence of you know who, is another big blow. As ever then, it falls on Sergio Parisse, who only joined up with the squad last Monday, to lift morale and show the way. How often can Italy go to this particular well?

The Parisse phenomenon

Arguably no man has done more to aid the cause of his national team than Italian captain Sergio Parisse, set to win his 114th cap tomorrow. He only joined up with the squad on Tuesday and took part in his first training session on Wednesday.

The great one spent a considerable amount of time in hospital recently after surgery was required to drain a massive haematoma in his calf. Now that is hardly ideal preparation at the best of times but given their wretched form of late, you get the impression that Italy were prepared to recast him in the role of the great Spanish knight Rodrigo Diaz, immortalised in the film ‘El Cid’. Fit or not, he leads this Italian side out on the field. Short on confidence, this Italian team need their iconic leader at their side.

The problem for Italy is that their match day squad tomorrow contains 18 players, including 11 starters, who plied their trade with either Treviso or Zebre last season. In 56 competitive games played across the Guinness Pro12 and the European Champions Cup or or European Challenge Cup, those two sides only managed a measly nine wins and a single draw between them. That represents a losing ratio of 82% across the vast majority of tomorrow’s squad.

In addition, the cornerstone of their game, the scrum, has started to crack, with the likes of Martin Castrogiovanni no longer the force he once was and not even included on the bench. Their discipline at the breakdown has also been poor but with Parisse back, their back row is capable of slowing Ireland’s ball. They must be targeted and shifted early to enable the superior Irish half- backs dictate the tempo and direction of this game.

Ireland need to make a big statement

Prior to the opening game of the 1982 football World Cup in Spain, I was part of an Irish Wolfhounds rugby squad that played in a two-game exhibition in Barcelona against a Catalan XV and the French national side. Tough and all as it was, we were in no doubt that we were a mere sideshow to the main event.

On the evening of that French game, we attended the incredible Camp Nou stadium for the opening ceremony and opening game between the holders Argentina, with the great Diego Maradona on board, and Belgium. Watching Ireland’s opening two games in this World Cup and comparing them with the other matches I attended — New Zealand against Argentina and England against Wales — I couldn’t help but feel like I did back in Barcelona, with Ireland’s matches appearing like mere sideshows to the real thing.

That is not Ireland’s fault. In fact, given how magnificently competitive the Tier Two nations have been in the tournament to date, Ireland have dealt with the challenges presented by Canada and Romania with ultra-professionalism. It’s just that neither contest carried anything like the ferocious intensity or physicality that has attached to the big games elsewhere.

Italy have been really poor of late but the one thing we know for certain is that they will be massively committed and manically physical. As a foretaste of what’s to come down the line, Ireland had better get used to it.

In fact Ireland need to make a statement at the Olympic Stadium tomorrow. While I firmly expect Ireland to win and secure a place in the knockout phase a week in advance of the big showdown against France, I also think they need to send out a message to the big guns waiting down the track. When it comes to delivering the type of intensity and physicality required to boss the contact area and win the key defensive collisions that prevent the opposition breaching the gain line when in possession, Ireland won’t be found wanting.

That is the one aspect that has been missing to date, primarily because it wasn’t required. After a number of comparatively passive encounters on that front, it is important for Ireland to reintroduce that quality against Italy and not just expect it to be part of their make-up against France next weekend.

Canada enjoyed 59% of possession against Italy last weekend. If Ireland manage to dominate to that degree then Italy, currently ranked 14th in the world for a reason, need to be put to the sword in attack by Ireland. The time has come for Ireland to raise the stakes.

Shaun Cronin, head sports reporter at breakingnews.ie, speaking with Simon Lewis, golf and rugby correspondent with the Irish Examiner, about Ireland’s clash with Italy in the RWC. Video by Dan Linehan.

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