You can lose to any given team on any given day, but considering that Italy can’t buy a win at this moment in time, it’s difficult to keep saying that they have a genuine chance of beating Ireland (or any Tier 1 nation for that matter) with a straight face, and that’s taking into account that this weekend’s game is taking place on Italian soil. Sergio Parisse is a shadow of his former self, and, even when fit, is no longer able to carry the team on his back. Time comes for us all, but despite having a squad with more than a handful decent players, Italy don’t have another talismanic figure like the Stade Français number eight to inspire them to shock wins.
Nevertheless, Ireland aren’t firing on all cylinders at present, and although there is a gap between the two squads in terms of quality, Joe Schmidt has to acknowledge the fact that Italy have the personnel to unsettle Ireland in certain phases of play. Fixtures between Ireland and Italy have ended in landslide victories for the men in green for several years now, but the 2013 Azzurri victory over Ireland is recent enough that seven Irish players who were involved that day are in this weekend’s matchday squad, and hopefully that’s enough to prevent any thoughts of a guaranteed win entering into their minds.
Ireland’s defensive system allows for space between outside centre and the touch line and if you review their biggest losses over the last few years, you’ll find that this is the area where they came undone. There have been occasions where they have tweaked their alignment and spread defenders out to counteract teams who go wide often (e.g. v Australia in 2018), but in their first two games of this tournament, they have defended narrowly:
Unfortunately for Ireland, they were up against an English back line who happened to click on the day in Round 1, but against Scotland, there were mitigating factors. After getting caught out in the backfield the previous week, the Irish wingers spent a lot of time hanging back behind the defensive line against Scotland in order to nullify the threat of kicks in behind, which meant that there was more space than usual to utilise close to the touch line.
This space was shut down once the ball went wide, but Ireland did concede more ground in these scenarios than they would have liked:
They recovered these situations against Scotland, but we saw the same issues last year when they let Italy run in three tries in the second half in Dublin:
This is going to be a cause for concern if Ireland defend in the same manner, as Italy caused Scotland a fair bit of strife in the five-metre channels in the first round of this Championship:
You can excuse Scotland for throttling back when they were 30 points ahead at one stage, but Italy found space at the edge of the vaunted Welsh defence in Round 2 when the Test was hanging in the balance:
Michele Campagnaro has everything you would want in a 13: pace, power, footwork, but more importantly, he has the skill and vision to get his wingers into space, and Ireland could do worse than mark him throughout the match, as he excels at targeting the point of the defensive line where Ireland are most vulnerable.
Italy were competitive against Wales from the off two weeks ago and, similar to Scotland, are confident in their ability to run the ball from everywhere. Ireland continue to falter when they start games badly, so they need to make Italy lose interest early on by denying them possession. They were eager to pounce on turnover ball against the Welsh and transitioned from defence into attack rapidly, so handling errors must to be kept to a minimum as well.
The Other Side
As dangerous as Italy have been with ball in hand in this tournament, their defence has been appalling. First-up tackling remains a serious problem for them, but it’s their inability to reorganise quickly or properly once their opponents get over the gain line that is the bigger issue, and it’s not helped by their tight five forwards defending in the centre positions:
Every defensive system breaks down at some point; if there was a way of stopping the other team from making line breaks, everyone would be doing it and we wouldn’t see tries, but until that happens, defence coaches are going to keep preparing their teams for the eventuality of broken tackles.
What happens after that is what separates good defensive sides from bad ones. In the three examples shown above, Italy displayed an astonishing lack of concentration off the ball and didn’t seem to bothered about realigning and covering the space between the breakdown and the touch line once the opposition made yards after contact. This is where Ireland are going to hurt them badly, because that type of defence plays right into Joe Schmidt’s hands.
When Alan Gaffney was in charge of Ireland’s attack, the focus was on scoring tries off pre-planned first-phase strike moves, which had its own merits; specific weaknesses were recognised in defensive set-ups and back line moves were designed accordingly to exploit them, but when they didn’t come off, tries were few and far between. Ireland still have power plays in their armoury under Schmidt (we saw a prime example of one against Scotland two weeks ago), but the New Zealander is more interested in multi-phase attacks that wears teams down incrementally.
When Ireland do execute one of his special plays, it’s normally on the second or third (or in some cases, fourth) phase, with Jacob Stockdale’s try against the All Blacks back in November being an obvious exception. The idea behind these moves is to target the space vacated by defenders who are trying to get back into position, as opposed to the blind spots in the initial alignment that Gaffney aimed to take advantage of. Each style of attack has its pros and cons, but in light of Ireland’s strengths and Italy’s weaknesses, Schmidt’s approach is likely to get the best out of the players available to him this weekend.
A carrier-heavy pack is the last thing Italy want to face, and Ireland’s forwards have worn down the sternest of defences over the last World Cup cycle, and then there’s the Irish midfield that have been picked by Schmidt to play on Sunday. Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose are as complete a 12-13 attacking axis as you will see in Test rugby; proven operators who have played (and won against) the top teams in the world. Most sides would struggle without them, but Ireland’s alternatives are capable of pulling defences asunder, too.
The selection of Bundee Aki and Chris Farrell together gives Ireland two wrecking ball centres, and if they catch fire, the Italian defence is going to endure a torrid 80 minutes on Sunday afternoon. The selection of Quinn Roux in the starting XV means that Ireland are going after the Italian maul defence (a long-standing weakness of theirs), and if they get two or three catch-and-drives in this game, Italy are in trouble. Ireland have taken Italy to the cleaners in their last few meetings (even when they floundered against the other teams in the tournament), and if they get a fast start, the same could happen again.
Upping The Ante
After starting this Championship in sluggish fashion against England, Ireland produced a performance of credibility in Murrayfield and you get the sense that they will slowly progress back towards their best. They need to go up a couple of levels for this fixture, though, if they are to reassert themselves as World Cup contenders, and go into the France and Wales games with momentum.
That’s not to say that Ireland should look past Italy as if the game is already won; it’s quite the opposite. If they approach this match the same way they would approach playing Australia or South Africa, they could rack up a massive scoreline that lets everyone else know that normal service has resumed. Even with Ireland’s lengthy injury list, the team Schmidt has selected could do exactly that, but the grogginess that characterised Ireland’s outings against England and Scotland can’t be viewed as acceptable from here on out.