Paul Crawford “Our Man in Aironi” reports.
Arriving in Parma at 7pm the sun was setting but the temperature remained in the high twenties with humidity to match. A nice evening for sitting in the square eating pizza but not ideal conditions for rugby…
Saturday dawned warmer than the day before. Arriving early at the ground it was good to see many Aironi fans already there enjoying the shade of the club house and surrounding terrace. Even the Italians were avoiding the mid afternoon sunshine.
Dinner eaten in the company of an ex-pat Ulsterman (the only other Ulster supporter in the crowd) and an Italian and an ex pat Frenchman I watched the guys warming up…. well should that be getting hotter than when they arrived. It was 30oC by now, possibly more in the direct sun on the pitch.
After the 1st harsh penalty of the day given against Ulster in the act of receiving the kickoff the Ulstermen settled a little and passed the ball around the pitch making good inroads. A couple of tries quickly scored the heat started to take its toll. Some precision was lost in position, tackles, set piece and passing. Aironi crept into the lead only on the stroke of half time for Humph to kick the ball a good 60 yards to grab a 1/2 time lead.
Half time was not long enough to rehydrate and cool the players. The ref continued to have trouble ensuring the Aironi front row bound to the Ulstermen nor did he always notice the Aironi prop with his leg driving at right angles to the front row (see my pictures!). It is possible Ulster were also infringing but I failed to notice this….
The loss of Andy K to an injury brought birthday boy Brady on and the introduction of Declan to the front row, for passport-less Paddy, brought some new strength and cunning which seemed to settle things in the scrum a bit.
A lovely break by the ever alert Marshall set up a third try. Lovely support from Brady running 2/3rd of the pitch to take the ball from Marshall and flatten some Aironi before the ball was recycled and moved to the wing for the score.
Despite signs of heat exhaustion in many of the players they never gave up fighting – initially to repel late surges by Aironi who still scented victory and then in attack after the clock was dead when they ran the final penalty in search of the elusive bonus point.
All the rest of the players not already mentioned by name were no less involved in attach and defence – the back row fought for every ball, Tuohy led many an attack and was well rewarded for 2 great matches with his 1st try of the season. Cronin’s yellow card was just daft. He couldn’t roll away – exhaustion and 3 Aironi going off their feet at the ruck lying all over him ensured that! But at least he got a well deserved wet towel to place over his head 5min before the rest of the players!
The centres were immense. Tackling all around and hitting the opposition in attack time and time again. The wings had limited attacking chances in space to show off the footwork but always looked for work in defence and followed the ball ready to take the final pass for scores when they came. At full back Adam was in control off the balls kicked his way but seemed to be well marked when countering, limiting him to a few breaks and leaving him suffering many a hit which he took and kept the ball safe until the big lads arrived.
Humph may have missed a kick or two but, as ever, he got the really hard ones at the really important times to keep everyone’s heads up and the score board ticking in the right direction.
On a final note, the new water boy – Jared, seems like a decent bloke. He flew 30 hours from New Zealand to Belfast and then on to Parma for the match this weekend. During warm-up he was fielding and returning all the kicks.
Apparently he has impressed the coaches and management with this catching and kicking ability and will be given a run out later this season as a player! Well done!
You can view more of Paul’s pictures here.