Rome became the green capital of the world for a day as the trattorias and terrazzos heaved with thousands of Irish supporters. The team did not let their extraordinary followers down and scored more than 50 points as they went for the championship on points difference. Yet when the final whistle blew and the Fields of Athenry rolled in off the stands no one actually knew who had won.
Sure, Ireland had beaten Italy but they would have to wait another two hours to discover they had not done enough to overtake France at the top of the championship. And even then the big screen went down at the crucial moment. What a farce.
This was all about putting television ahead of sport and debased the history of this competition. Shame on the BBC who made such demands and yet did not even care enough about the game between France and Scotland to give it radio coverage ahead of a cricket match between India and Bangladesh.
Perhaps it scarcely mattered to the 17,000 Irish amongst the crowd of 24,000 in Italy’s capital, just as it scarcely mattered that their front five had taken one hell of a beating. The Irish backs proved again that they are of a far superior horsepower to anything else in the championship and scored eight tries with scarcely any ball. But Eddie O’Sullivan is too shrewd a coach not to analyse the huge deficiencies apparent in Ireland’s game. Without Paul O’Connell their line-out fell apart and the front row was utterly minced in the scrum. O’Sullivan will also realise that Ireland were the beneficiaries of the most peculiar refereeing in the first half.
Judging from his decisions it appeared that referee Jonathan Kaplan was embracing St Patrick’s Day as enthusiastically as the Irish supporters. During that period Ireland scored three tries and each of them owed much to Kaplan’s green-eyed view of the match.
His first strange decision was the award of a free-kick against Italy at a scrum for pushing early. Given that Ireland had run backwards at the first two scrums you would have needed electronic timing to detect an early shove.
From the tap Gordon D’Arcy, who made an absolute mess of Italy’s inside defence, made a half-break and it was then a simple enough task for Denis Hickie and Brian O’Driscoll to put in Girvan Dempsey. Italy did not look at all amused by the decision but let it pass until half-time. Then when the teams came back out Marco Bortolami, Italy’s captain, asked Kaplan a question along the lines of: "Why in the name of Perugini would we want to push early against a plasticine front row like Ireland’s?"
Kaplan’s second moment of generosity again came from a scrum. Italy had an almighty shove on when the Ireland front row wheeled in a desperate attempt to disengage. This was not only illegal but left David Wallace in a position to pick up Italy’s possession. Grateful for another glimpse of the ball Ireland countered superbly through their flankers who worked the space for Shane Horgan. The Irish wing charged up the touchline and was left with one man to beat. Horgan, however, had to rely on the support of Simon Easterby to finish matters off.
The third mistake from the officials came moments before half-time. With the Irish scrum again under pressure Ronan O’Gara did very well to pick up a hurried pass off his toes and give a short ball to Hickie. It was all well done, but then Hickie’s pass to D’Arcy who went on to score, was blatantly forward.
It is stating the obvious to observe that those three tries changed the nature of the match, because instead of trailing at half-time and having a fretful front five pondering the Italian threat to their manhood, Ireland led by 20-12. The psychological difference that those decisions made to the teams became obvious in the second half as it took Ireland less than 20 minutes to rip apart Italy’s midfield defence and run in four tries.
The Irish outside backs are very good indeed and Italy had no idea whether to stick or twist. Deprived of their three best outside backs and their openside flanker for this match, they were simply left standing. (Mark Reason – The Sunday Telegraph).