When Ireland lost control in the third quarter, you could have forgiven them, given how far ahead of Italy they were on the scoreboard. The fact that they went ahead and grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck and added four tries in 14 minutes and turned down every shot at goal on offer is indicative of a team who still have designs on winning this Championship. The players and management were at pains in the build-up to this fixture to stress that they were focusing on the challenge of playing Italy, and not on racking up a huge points difference to put themselves back in contention; that may have been true with previous coaches following a first round loss, but not Joe Schmidt.
The video analysis session after Scotland doesn’t bear thinking about, but whatever the coaching ticket said worked; the players channelled their frustration and disappointment into a resounding win that may prove to be vital later on. Each of their failings were corrected, with aggressive, well-organised defence, attack that used up the full width of the pitch, set-piece dominance, and ferocious breakdown work characterising one of the most convincing displays that Ireland have ever produced on Italian soil. They were a different beast to the side that somnambulated around Murrayfield seven days before.
The Welcome Return of the Blitz
Ireland’s defensive efforts undoubtedly saw the greatest improvements since the Scotland Test. Below is Italy’s first wide movement of the game, and a blitz from the Irish back line shuts them down completely, with Robbie Henshaw forcing a handling error from Carlo Canna:
Play was called back for a penalty against Ireland for offside, but what was more important was that they laid down a marker by disrupting Italy’s first meaningful attack. This set the tone for the rest of the game, and Ireland’s hard press forced Italy to play on the back foot whenever they did hold on to the ball for successive phases. Sometimes, teams fall into the trap of being careless in defence early on, only to get a wake-up call when the opposition score; Ireland concentrated on defending aggressively for the entirety, helped in large part by Garry Ringrose being more proactive in his tackling.
What was probably most pleasing for Andy Farrell was the manner in which Ireland’s defence wrestled control of the game back from Italy when the hosts enjoyed their purple patch in the third quarter. In the below example, Italy have built up a head of steam, and have created an overlap on the far side. Recognising the possibility of a line break if the ball gets past Simon Zebo, Paddy Jackson and Keith Earls rush off their line to pressurise Luke McLean’s pass and then snare Michele Campagnaro in possession:
Earls makes the initial hit, with an assist tackle by Niall Scannell to put the Italian inside centre to ground, but it’s the follow-up work from the Munster hooker that’s crucial. By placing his hand just beyond the ball, he prevents Edoardo Gori from getting it away quickly, giving Ireland’s defensive line time to reset, and then by dislodging it from the ruck with his foot, he forces the scrum-half into throwing an awful pass to Canna, who is already under pressure from the quick line speed of Jackson and Zebo. Although play was called back for advantage to Italy at the end of this passage, it was further demonstration of how the home side were under relentless pressure even when they had the ball.
Luke McLean and Tommaso Benvenuti aren’t the most incisive centre partnership around, and Ireland have progress to make defensively, especially in midfield (their organisation dropped a couple of notches the second Robbie Henshaw departed), but limiting the opposition to one cheap penalty try for a rolling maul is a good day’s work.
Using the Whole Pitch to Attack
As is the case with any victory, Ireland’s win started up front. With a higher number of scrums in the game, their superiority in this area was a deciding factor, with Andrea Lovotti and Lorenzo Cittadini being made to look like novices against the aggressive scrummaging of Cian Healy and Tadhg Furlong. Even Italy’s put-ins were source of penalties for an Irish eight that were determined to assert themselves.
Ireland’s lineout woes were remedied, providing them with the perfect platform to get their back line motoring. Donnacha Ryan and Devin Toner renewed their partnership to stabilise what was a cause for great concern in round one. As dynamic as Iain Henderson and Ultan Dillane are, they don’t provide Ireland with the same security on their own throw as the Ryan/Toner axis. Ireland’s starting locks are more than set-pieces players, though; they outplayed Marco Fuser and Dries van Schalkwyk around the park, too, Ryan with some show-stopping wrap tackles and bruising carries, and Toner with deft handling and technically adroit rucking. Ireland’s maul is a little bit off where it needs to be, but their intention was to go for quick ball off the top to keep Italy’s pack moving in this game, rather than ground them into the dirt.
As poor as Italy were, a team can’t score nine tries without playing with high levels of skill and invention, and Ireland made their intentions clear from the first whistle. From the kick-off, Simon Zebo brilliantly regathered Conor Murray’s box-kick, and immediately after this, Ireland go from one touch line to the other in the space of three phases:
Ireland didn’t just hurt Italy by flinging the ball wide. They kept the Italian defence honest with grubber kicks early on, and they also used switch-back plays to target the gaps close to the ruck/scrum, exposing the lack of pace of Italy’s forwards and their inability to get across to close down the space once the next defender drifted across:
The blind side was the source of many of Ireland’s attacks, forcing Italy to second-guess where to load their defence, giving Ireland space either side of the ruck, and the visitors stuck to their task, exploiting that space until the final whistle:
As well as the above players performed, the salient difference between the teams was the impact from their respective back rows. The roles assigned to each of Ireland’s loose forwards made them much more effective as a unit: Seán O’Brien carried hard and direct, Jamie Heaslip used footwork to change the direction of Ireland’s attack in midfield and CJ Stander pulverised Italy all across their defensive line. It was a sharp contrast from the previous week, when all three carried in a straight line tight to the ruck in the first half, and on top of their carrying prowess, they performed numerous punishing clear outs, giving Ireland a steady supply of quick ball.
Once their forwards gave them the platform, Ireland’s backs had the freedom to express themselves. Paddy Jackson varied between passing and having a cut at the line expertly, and Henshaw’s hard-running into Carlo Canna generated the momentum for a few of Ireland’s tries. Sergio Parisse doesn’t get scorched too often, and that wasn’t the only moment of genius from Garry Ringrose, who grows in confidence with each game.
Keith Earls displayed excellent footwork and peerless finishing instincts, and Simon Zebo’s touches were marvellous. Rob Kearney had a mixed game; his distribution as the second-last man in ranged between skilful and below par, and he failed to win aerial contests when you’d normally bet the house on to claim the ball. Even though there were moments of go-forward with ball in hand, it was an outing that nowhere near his exploits in Chicago.
The Green Onslaught
One of the underappreciated aspects of Ireland’s performance was the reward they reaped from exerting pressure on Italy’s clearance kicks. Italy were intent on keeping the ball in play every time they used the boot, in order to negate the threat of the Irish maul. By rushing up into the faces of the Italians when they tried to clear their lines, Ireland earned several counterattacking opportunities:
The quality of Ireland’s rush off the line in these instances meant that whenever Italy tried to kick out of their own half, they were essentially giving Ireland back the ball in and around their own ten-metre line, so they couldn’t get a breather, and instead had to go into defensive mode for long periods throughout the game. This tactic made life very difficult for the Azzurri, as no matter what they tried, they couldn’t find a way of retaining the ball or getting down the other end of the pitch, and instead had to cope with wave after wave of Irish attack deep in their own territory.
Reigniting Championship Hopes
The standards set by the players who would normally be considered non-starters were hugely encouraging for Ireland. Niall Scannell, in particular, deserves special praise. The circumstances surrounding Scannell being given the starting berth would have left a lot of players nervous, but he played better than anyone could have imagined, with influential rucking, tackling and ball carrying, on top of a near-flawless exhibition of lineout throwing, and all against Leonardo Ghiraldini, a streetwise operator with 80+ caps.
Cian Healy is getting ever closer to his best, Josh van der Flier was a line-breaking threat in wider channels against a tired Italian defence, and after a relatively quiet cameo in Murrayfield, Ultan Dillane returned to the ball carrying force of nature that Connacht and Ireland teams have grown to depend on. The most encouraging performance of all came from Paddy Jackson, who seems to have gone from emergency back-up to a genuine competitor for the 10 shirt in the space of two Tests. Kicking 9 out of 9 would be applauded if they were all in front of the posts, but sending touch line conversions straight down the middle won’t hurt his chances of holding on to a starting place.
After spending the second half of 2016 throwing second-string players in the deep end against southern hemisphere opposition due to injuries, Ireland are now starting to show real strength in depth, to the point where even the potential loss of Rob Kearney for the rest of the tournament is something that they can cope with.
There’s plenty of room for improvement left for Ireland, and they will need to find another gear for their remaining games, going by the pace and intensity of the Wales-England Test. It looks like it’s going to be another while until they learn to play for 80 minutes, and their inclination towards turning down shots at goal could make them easy to defend against the more proficient Welsh and English defences, but overall, they’re in a much better place than they were the Sunday before last.