The main reason Ireland beat Italy by such a large margin last year was the way they went about their business in the first 20 minutes. They held on to the ball for multiple phases and repeatedly hammered at the Italian defence close to the ruck through CJ Stander, Seán O’Brien and Robbie Henshaw.
There were other important factors in the landslide victory, too: Donnacha Ryan’s inclusion in the starting XV solved the lineout problems that they experienced against Scotland the week before, the speed and ferocity of their rucking were first-rate, and using Garry Ringrose as a shooter defender prevented Italy from putting together any threatening back line movements.
Ireland’s tactics weren’t narrow, though; they got the ball out to Simon Zebo and Keith Earls on the wings regularly and both were effective with ball in hand, and Rob Kearney spent much of the game up in the attacking line as a distributor/strike-runner option, but it was car-crash collisions like the below that laid the foundation for the nine tries they scored that day:
These type of heavy carries forced the Italian pack to put in a considerable amount of tackles and even though Conor O’Shea brought three of his forward replacements on within 47 minutes, you could tell by the body language of the home side that the damage was done. They enjoyed something of a purple patch in the second quarter when Glen Jackson awarded them a penalty try and sin-binned Donnacha Ryan on the back of a collapsed maul, but outside of that, they didn’t fire a shot. Ireland amassing a 21-nil lead by the 28th minute meant that, barring a miracle, Italy had no way of making their way back into the game.
While O’Brien and Stander aren’t starting this weekend, Ireland will in all likelihood repeat the same tactics that were successful a year ago and wear out the Azzurri pack with a high number of direct runs from their most dynamic players. O’Brien’s absence is a loss in terms of ball carrying, but Bundee Aki’s physicality, which was a crucial yet seemingly unnoticed component of Ireland’s victory against France, will be vital to softening up the Italian defence, and Jack Conan is offers a similar type of physicality to the man he is stepping in for at number eight.
The final score doesn’t reflect it, but Italy were competitive with England for large parts of their clash on Sunday, and there are a few areas where they can give Ireland headaches. They won a couple of penalties on the ground, with Renato Giammarioli being a thorn in England’s side in this department, profiting from Courtney Lawes’ playing in the English back row.
The Northampton Saints lock has the dynamism and work rate to play at 6, but he’s not suited to getting low quickly, and without a groundhog like Sam Underhill in their back row, England struggled to shift the Zebre openside off the ball when he got into the poach position. Giammarioli won’t feature this weekend, but competing at the breakdown effectively is something the Italian pack did as a collective. Slow ruck ball contributed towards Ireland’s inability to score tries against France, but with Dan Leavy at openside, they should be better equipped than England to deal with Italy’s interference at the breakdown, provided that Leavy can beat his opposite number into that space.
Italy also went out of their way to disrupt the English lineout in a number of ways: they closed the gap as much as possible, put men in the air on every English throw, shoved the English maul sideways into touch, and sacked the jumper as soon as he came to ground:
Sam Simmonds ended up scoring a try using the space created from Italy tackling Lawes before the maul had a chance to form properly in the above example, but you can understand their intentions. The English pack are a well-drilled unit under Steve Borthwick and are hard to stop once they get motoring. Italy’s lineout and maul defence didn’t win them the game, but it did partly nullify one of England’s greatest strengths.
Ireland will have to be wary of this because most of their losses in the recent years have been due to their lineout malfunctioning. They may have beaten France last week, but it was an issue for them in that game as well. Devin Toner’s selection will ensure that Ireland have stability out of touch and a platform to launch their multi-phase attacks, on top of providing a stronger mauling presence than Iain Henderson or James Ryan.
Italy did several good things in attack against England, targeting the space at the edge of Paul Gustard’s blitz defence by throwing wide passes to a deep-standing distributor. The idea behind this was to let England’s midfielders rush off the line and create a gap between them and the winger, with the wide receiver having enough time to put a support player into that space, thereby using England’s line speed against them:
They made substantial gains down the left wing throughout the game with quality handling and some of their backs stood out on an individual level. Tommaso Boni was strong in contact and Mattia Bellini, Tommaso Benvenuti and Matteo Minozzi were quick and elusive. More importantly, their support play against England was of a high standard, with multiple support runners offering different options to the ball carrier once the first line was breached:
The pass from doesn’t go from Boni to Tommaso Allan in this instance, but if it had done, the Italian out-half had a clear run at the try line. As it turned out, Benvenuti touched down three phases later, but flooding the support channels with runners was a prominent feature of Italy’s attack, even when they went up through the middle:
France found space at the edge of Ireland’s defence, and although they scrambled well and recovered in these situations, the French backs didn’t link up with each other particularly well. Ireland won’t be so lucky this weekend, and with the way Italy repeatedly attacked the blind side in the second half, they will have to be on their toes against a team who have developed a more varied attacking game under Conor O’Shea.
It was a clever change of tactic from the Azzurri, given that they had gone wide-wide frequently in the first half, and they made decent yards on the short side. The best defensive sides can be slow in to adjusting to a change in the point of attack from the opposition, and England were caught short of numbers when Italy altered their attacking strategy:
The Italian back line got very little change out of Ireland in the 15-metre channel last year as a result of Garry Ringrose’s aggressive defence at 13, and a similar approach from Henshaw will go a long way towards denying them the space that they found down the touch line against England.
Old Habits Die Hard
For all the positives of their performance against England, Italy’s age-old weaknesses were their undoing. Their defence out wide was naïve, and England got a return from going down the right wing using loop plays, with the Italians being guilty of being slow off the line and narrow in their alignment:
Ireland are past masters at this tactic, and they got change out of the French defence by having Johnny Sexton loop around Bundee Aki. With the time and space Italy afforded England in similar scenarios, it’s a move that we’re certain to see from Joe Schmidt’s side numerous times on Saturday.
Whenever England turned the screw, Italy fell into the trap of conceding consecutive needless penalties, which led to long periods of defence against a heavy English pack. England punished them for their indiscretions by repeatedly carrying around the corner, and the home side had no answer for the brutish physicality of their opposition in the closing stages:
Once their legs were gone, the walk-in tries that have been hallmark features of Italian losses for years happened and they conceded ground far too easily:
Despite their implosion, Italy fought their way back into the game after England’s second try (when it would have been easier to collapse), and it wasn’t until the last 10 minutes that Eddie Jones’ side pulled away. It’s difficult to know if this happened because England took their foot off the gas and couldn’t kill off the Azzurri’s interest early on the way Ireland did last year, or if Italy’s fitness has improved to the point that they can compete with the better sides for longer than they used to.
If it’s the former, Josh van der Flier is a huge loss. Having two pacy opensides in their matchday squad would have allowed Ireland to spring one of them off the bench if Italy are trying to stay afloat. We’ve seen van der Flier excelling at bursting through gaps as the second or third man out from the ruck in similar fashion to Sam Simmonds’ second try on Sunday.
Dan Leavy is another player shines against fractured defences, with his break and offload for Luke McGrath’s try against the Exeter Chiefs back in December being a classic example of taking full advantage of soak tackles in midfield. Stander doesn’t lack for pace, but it would have been better to have a wiry, fleet-footed, linkman option in the substitutes for what Ireland likely have in mind for the final quarter of this game.
If it’s the latter, then Ireland really need to apply the blowtorch from the first whistle. Wales were ruthless against an admittedly poor Scottish side, and in spite of their injuries, they are playing exciting rugby which is heavily influenced by the high-tempo style that the Scarlets have enjoyed success with at club level. England aren’t the wounded animal that many made them out to be either, and they still have plenty of first-choice players to come back into the fray during this tournament. It is therefore imperative that Ireland rack up a big score on Saturday, because this Championship could go down to the wire.
With Devin Toner being brought into the starting XV, we’re probably going to see more mauling from Ireland so that they can tire out the Italian pack over the course of the first 60 minutes. The gulf in experience between the sides in terms of front row replacements might prove to be significant. Tiziano Pasquali was taken apart in the scrums when he entered the fray, and Cian Healy has a lot more Test caps than Alec Hepburn. All going well, the scrum should be a source of penalties for Ireland, and if it’s a dry day, the presence of players like Sean Cronin, Andrew Porter, Kieran Marmion and Jordan Larmour come off the bench against tiring legs will hopefully help Ireland secure at least a bonus point.