Coast To Coast
Ireland’s back play took a lot of flak following their narrow win in Paris, with over-reliance on Johnny Sexton’s playmaking abilities and a lack of incision out wide from players like Bundee Aki, Robbie Henshaw and Rob Kearney being cited as reasons for their inability to score tries against an inexperienced French team.
There’s definitely an element of truth to the former, but the latter doesn’t take into account contributing factors (wet conditions, French interference on the ground) behind Ireland having to win via three-pointers at the Stade de France, rather than just the perceived shortage of pace/line-breaking ability from their centres and fullback.
None of these things blighted their attack against Italy, and while a certain amount of that may be down to poor line speed and maul defence from Conor O’Shea’s side, there were many dimensions to Ireland’s attack on Saturday. The home team didn’t start the game as smoothly as they would have liked, with mistiming of running lines ruining gilt-edged line-breaking chances:
This was corrected by the time they scored their second try; after that, Ireland hit their straps nicely, and everyone seemed to be on the same page, with handling errors kept to a minimum, and offloading to the fore. Ireland went wide-wide from deep in their own half from the get-go, having recognised that Italy’s defence is vulnerable in the five-metre channel:
The passes out the back door behind a decoy runner did the most damage, despite Italy’s best attempts to rush up and shut these movements down. This actually aided Ireland’s cause because it meant the visitors were narrowing in and having defenders run past the ball, thereby taking themselves out of the game:
A prominent feature of Ireland’s attacking patterns was the use of Peter O’Mahony as a distributor in wide channels. Passing has always been a strength of the Munster captain’s and the fact that we have seen it for two games in a row now means that it’s not improvised. He did throw one forward pass in this position against France the previous week, but against Italy, there were no mistakes, and having him carry out this role allowed Ireland to tip the ball on delicately once the last player in the front line of the Italian defence had committed themselves to him:
Inside passes have long been a mainstay of Joe Schmidt’s preordained strike plays, but the timing of this tactic against Italy is what made it so effective. Ireland’s repeated use of wide-wide movements and wraparounds in the first quarter led the Azzurri into the trap of drifting across as soon as the ball went as far as Sexton. Once a defender turns their shoulders out, it’s difficult for them to readjust to an attacker running at their inside shoulder and Ireland took full advantage of this:
Like everything else that Ireland did with ball in hand, they didn’t over-use the inside ball to the point of it becoming predictable, and they showed intelligence by waiting until they caught the Italian defence leaning before springing it on them.
Even though Ireland’s back line have received the plaudits, there was more to their landslide victory than first-rate handling and incisive running lines. That’s not to trying to take away from the individual or collective performances from their backs; Conor Murray’s passing was as crisp as we have ever seen it, Sexton orchestrated his team with his usual narkiness, Aki was creative, powerful and quick, Jacob Stockdale continued his impressive strike-rate and Keith Earls’ pace and footwork were outstanding, but the effort from the forwards can go unnoticed in routs like these.
There were strong carries from Jack McGrath, Devin Toner and Jack Conan, and Ireland’s work at the breakdown was much-improved. It put the ball on a plate for Murray, with quick, low rucking denying Italy the opportunity to win penalties or make Ireland wait for a few seconds for the ball to come to their scrum-half’s hands:
Having Braam Steyn (normally a blindside flanker) at 7 put Italy at a disadvantage in this area, but Dan Leavy easily won the one-on-one battle with his opposite number, ripping the ball in contact for Earls’ try and being unlucky not to effect another turnover later on:
Ireland’s maul provided them with a stable platform, with 3 of their 8 tries stemming from catch-and-drives. The most impressive one came in the build-up to Aki’s try, with quick bracing, good length and patience dismantling the Italian pack:
Having a 6’4” flanker playing in the second row left Italy short on power in the tight phases. Alessandro Zanni is a quality back rower, but at 106kg, he doesn’t have the ballast that is required in the engine room against the likes of Devin Toner and Quinn Roux. This wasn’t the only reason for the Azzurri’s struggles in this phase of play; the speed of their counter-maul formation and body position were substandard, but they didn’t have the personnel to deal with Ireland’s drive in the first place.
The Ireland coaching ticket can take a number of things away from this game, but unfortunately, not all of them are positive. Ireland’s starting back line looked more cohesive, Andrew Porter was comfortable playing almost a full Test and we’re going to be seeing plenty of Jordan Larmour at this level in years to come, defensive errors aside. The way that Ireland’s control over the game dissipated once their starting half-backs were substituted was disappointing, though, and demonstrated how reliant Ireland still are on Murray and Sexton for direction.
Schmidt did the right thing by bringing Kieran Marmion and Joey Carbery on early in the second half; Ireland’s alternatives at 9 are in need of game time at international level, and Carbery has played very little rugby since fracturing his wrist against Fiji back in November. Giving them minutes against a well-beaten Italian side is less risky than throwing them in against better teams with the result in the balance, and it lets them iron out creases in their performances.
After generating quick ruck ball for 50 minutes, Ireland’s forwards were suddenly slow to clear out and place the ball back when Murray left the field, and Marmion had to spend a couple of seconds digging it out:
There doesn’t appear to be any communication between the Connacht scrum-half and his pack in this instance, and while there are definitely Italian hands in the ruck, the drop in standards from his forwards in this facet might not have happened if he had barked orders at them. Having to wait so long to get the ball away gave the Italian defence time to reset, which prevented Ireland from scoring more tries in the closing stages.
At 10, Carbery distributed and ran well, but it was when he put boot to ball that problems arose. On the rare occasions that Sexton kicked out of hand, he put enough hang-time on the ball for Ireland’s chasers to cover the ground and compete in the air against an Italian back three who are dangerous on the counterattack.
Carbery, on the other hand, put in more than one downtown kick that invited Mattia Bellini, Tommaso Benvenuti and Matteo Minozzi to run the ball back at Ireland, and the end results came as no surprise to anyone who had seen what these players were capable of against England in Round 1:
These loose kicks were part of the reason why Ireland let in three avoidable tries against an Italian team who hadn’t fired a shot until Schmidt started emptying their bench, and as potent as the new-look Italian back three are (and they are fast), Wales, Scotland and England have more threatening players in the backfield. If Sexton is forced off early in any of Ireland’s remaining games, and Carbery repeatedly kicks too long, Ireland will be in serious trouble.
Ireland’s defensive line speed also dropped a notch when Marmion and Carbery entered the fray, although it must be noted that Earls moving to 13 following Robbie Henshaw’s arm injury didn’t help. They had to play half an hour with the untried combination of Carbery, Aki and Earls in midfield. Trying out players alongside each other in training only does so much in terms of making them familiar with one another, but live matches are where defensive units are truly put through their paces.
These issues, plus the loss of Henshaw for the rest of the tournament and the injury cloud hanging over Tadhg Furlong have dampened expectations slightly for Schmidt’s side. Ireland have developed strength in depth in recent times, winning big games without star players (the victory over South Africa in the 2016 June Series being the best example), but this Championship is going to put it to the test. If they are to be successful, then their reserve players are going to play an important part.