When assessing Ireland’s underwhelming performance yesterday, it’s worth noting that Cian Healy, Rory Best, James Ryan, Devin Toner, Dan Leavy, CJ Stander, Jack Conan, Joey Carbery, Robbie Henshaw, Garry Ringrose and Jordan Larmour were all missing from the matchday squad either through injury or squad rotation. That’s seven nailed-on starters, the second-choice out-half, a back-up number eight and an openside flanker who shone for Ireland this time last year. If you took that many players out of any squad, they would be less potent, but that’s not how Joe Schmidt will be looking at it.
The strength in depth that the Ireland head coach has been building over the last World Cup cycle is supposed to make games like this (where several changes are made) run smoothly; Ireland got the try bonus point in the end, but there was no fluency to their performance whatsoever. It is true that Italy were combative and resolute in defence on the day, but more would have been expected from players who may have to be called upon later this year in the event of injury.
Despite making an inordinate number of mistakes throughout the 80 minutes, Ireland actually started the game brightly in terms of their phase play, with good variation in attack putting the Italian defence through its paces. Ireland alternated between hitting forwards running short lines, floating passes out to different players in their three-man pods, wraparounds, inside passes and second-line plays, and you could see Italy struggling to figure out where the point of attack was going to be next:
The idea behind this type of multi-phase attack was that forcing Italy to defend for long periods would tire them out later on in the game, and if Ireland hadn’t knocked the ball on as often as they did, Italy would probably have fatigued badly in the final quarter, but it didn’t pan out that way.
The other noticeable feature of what Ireland did with ball in hand was the footwork from their forwards before contact. It’s something that Ireland have been criticised for not doing enough of in recent years, but yesterday it seemed that their pack were give clear instructions to put in a change of direction before being tackled:
This kind of ball-carrying forces the tackler to travel that bit further and that extra movement has a cumulative effect on players over the course of the match. Doing it against a team like Italy who rarely last the full game anyway makes perfect sense, but unfortunately Ireland couldn’t execute their keep-ball strategy as well as they would have hoped, largely because of their own mistakes. There is plenty of room for improvement, but the signs are there that Ireland have more in their playbook than people would have you think.
The Marx Brothers
This was the most error-ridden performance that Ireland have put in since their first game against Australia under Schmidt back in November of 2013, and the Ireland head coach won’t allow personnel changes to be used as an excuse. Test rugby is a squad effort these days, and if players are serious about earning a place in Schmidt’s matchday squads, they can’t make the mistakes that they made yesterday.
It wasn’t just the fringe players who were guilty of this; even the regular starters made fundamental errors in different phases of play:
Bundee Aki’s early withdrawal meant that Ireland’s back line was forced into a reshuffle and there’s a degree of rustiness that always comes with trying out new combinations in any positions, but seeing Keith Earls drop a straightforward pass in midfield (a position where he has an abundance of experience playing at club and international level), Sean Cronin get his darts wrong (and concede a needless offside penalty) and Johnny Sexton not finding touch with a clearance kick was disheartening.
When you add in one of Sexton’s restarts not going 10 metres, Conor Murray getting the ball ripped from his grasp with ease and the passive nature of Ireland’s defence, it reinforces the notion that Schmidt’s side have gone off the boil. Maybe it was a tall order to ask for the performance levels from last year to be sustained for so long, but if Ireland can’t get out of the daze that they are currently in soon, they could be facing the very real prospect of another World Cup failure.
Credit must be given where it’s due, and one of the main reasons why Ireland were made to look so poor yesterday was the excellent performance from Italy. They were adventurous and skillful in attack, but it was what they did off the ball that troubled Ireland. They were physical and well-organised around the fringes of the ruck for a lot longer than expected, and when you consider how much change Ireland normally get out of other teams in this area, it was an impressive defensive display from the Azzurri to limit the damage that Ireland did in close quarters:
Ireland depend on fast ruck ball for their multi-phase game plan and Italy recognised this beforehand. They made an absolute nuisance of themselves at as many breakdowns as possible, and Murray became noticeably exasperated as the game wore on:
There’s a valid argument that what Italy were doing on the floor was illegal, but every team pushes the boundaries in this phase of play (Ireland have certainly done it in the past), and as mentioned before, it’s up to you how much you let the opposition interfere with the sped of your ruck ball.
This isn’t the first time that we’ve seen Ireland flounder when their opponents are competitive on the ground and hard-hitting and quick to get back into position in-close, and you get the impression that Conor O’Shea paid close attention to previous games where this happened. It speaks volumes that Ireland had to rely on lineout steals and turnovers on the deck to get themselves out of difficult situations.
Back To The Drawing Board (Again)
It’s hard to know what Ireland can do to lift themselves for their last two games in this tournament. Rotating their squad didn’t provide any sort of a boost (quite the opposite in fact), and their star half-back pairing continue to play below their best. Schmidt wasn’t shy about saying that he felt that a few of the players who were handed opportunities to stake their claim didn’t take advantage of them, and it might be a while before we see some of them starting for Ireland again.
The problem for Ireland, though, is that they can’t afford to throw in the towel when they have two challenging fixtures left (plus an outside chance at winning the Championship). France will be buoyed by their dominant win over Scotland and Wales will likely be unbeaten going into the final round of the tournament, so if Ireland keep producing sub-par performances, they could be staring down the barrel of two heavy defeats.