ON THE positive side, anytime you win a Six Nations match by 50-17 you have to be pleased with the way things have gone... Well, maybe we could have run in one or two more tries against this particularly weak Italian side.
All the same, it was an enjoyable enough afternoon of football. Youngster Hugo Keenan (could a name be more drenched in Irish rugby heritage?) topped off a remarkable debut with two tries and was only denied his hat-trick by the TMO spotting an obstruction earlier in the play.
Will Connors also scored a touchdown on his debut but also combined it with some amazing tackles that stymied the Italians at the nearest sniff of them going on the offence. He richly deserved his Man-of-the-Match award.
Among the old guard, It was great to see Conor Murray confidently run the ball through the passes again rather than box-kicking everything from behind the maul. Hopefully, it’s an indication that the Munster scrum-half is back to his confident best. And then there was Mr Consistent himself, CJ Stander doing the heavy lifting as usual. Pushing the line forward through the hard yards.
Yet even with all these powerful performances and impressive tries, it was a one-off moment of inspiration, a 'simple' offload that took only a second to complete that stole the show and the main talking point of the game.
We are all familiar with Peter O’Mahony’s skills in the lineout, his work in the back row and most of all his bravery in protecting the clearout. O’Mahony puts his neck and spine into positions you wouldn’t risk parking your car and has paid the price with injuries over the years but it was for a far more subtle moment of skill that had the fans gushing on Saturday.
The Con man didn’t even start the game, only coming on in the 67th minute for Caelan Doris, with Ireland already 31-10 up, but the side was in a bit of a scoring rut at the time. O’Mahony’s introduction immediately put the side on the front foot again. Within two minutes of coming on, he picked up a turnover ball, stole the gain line which was impressive enough. But his maturity and experience sparkled in the next phase. Coming into contact, O’Mahony would’ve been expected to take the tackle, turn his back, go down, and recycle the ball to his teammates as any good second-rower would.
Instead, he dived forward into the tackles drawing-in a second Italian defender opening up space behind the Italians. O’Mahony’s forward dash twisted his body allowing him to move his ball-carrying arm the room to deliver a delicious underarm offload beyond the despairing Italians’ grasps for a perfectly floated pass into the breadbasket of the onrushing Bundee Aki, for the Connacht man to side-step his way over the line for the try.
In an afternoon jammed with scores and positive play for the Irish team, it was this individual moment of inspiration that captured the imagination of the Irish fans.
For some time now we have become accustomed to the Irish style of play; our brave work in the breakdown, the going through the phases, winning the hard yards to the gain-line. Unfortunately, so too have our opponents. They know we will crash the gain-line, they know our strengths and more importantly our weaknesses. The Italians didn’t have the capacity to do anything about it but you better believe the French will. A French side working to break from their status quo with exciting play based on individual initiatives of their own. And that’s where O’Mahony’s offload is far more important than the subsequent try it provided. It was a moment of individual brilliance that threw the defence totally off guard because it was not in the playbook.
It was refreshing to see a moment of magic from an Irish player, for too long we have been predictable and O’Mahony’s skill showed that Irish players have the capability to do the dramatic and unexpected.
This returns us to the elephant in the Irish camp (or not as it is) and that is the continued absence of Simon Zebo from the national squad. Despite being good enough to star in the side that were runners-up in the Champions Cup but down to the stinking technicality regarding foreign-based players he continues to be ignored for selection and we continue to deny one of the most exciting and unpredictable talents in the Irish game.
Sure, he may not be a favourite of the coaching elite in this country, but to deny us his audaciousness and x-factor qualities over a self-imposed rule denies us his exciting talent and the moments of opportunism he can provide in abundance.
The game of rugby has transitioned well into the era of professionalism but we must remember that it must also strive to be as entertaining as it can be. The skill we witnessed from Peter O’Mahony and what his fellow county man Zebo has shown regularly, is what the fans cherish and want to see.
The delight people had in seeing the play and hand-skills leading up to JJ Hanrahan's try for Munster against Cardiff in their Pro 14 game on Monday night is proof that the odd showboat move may be risky, but are entertaining and can be very effective.