A long break from any sport often goes hand in hand with a dulled competitive edge and a high error count, but Ireland must hit the ground running this Saturday against Italy both to atone for their last outing and to keep their Championship hopes alive. With several club games under their belts, their players have had plenty of time to get the early-season mistakes out of the way, but the familiarity that comes with playing together for the national side is bound to have dissipated.
Andy Farrell has made several changes to his matchday squad, which may have more to do with Ireland’s hammering at the hands of England back in February than squad-building. Italy have been poor so far under Franco Smith, but with nothing to lose, they might decide to make life uncomfortable for Ireland and derail their Championship hopes. If Ireland go into this fixture with the France game in their thoughts, it could well be their undoing.
Having multiple playmakers in the backline is a growing trend in the game, and you only have to look at the Exeter Chiefs’ dominance of European club rugby to see the benefits to having extra conductors on the bus. The license that Rob Baxter gives his back three to pop up at different points in the attacking line to act both as strike-runners and distributors makes defensive decision-making difficult for the opposition because of the myriad of options that the English side can take.
When you’re faced with a team who play like this, how do you know if the player in possession is there to have a cut at you or commit you before passing? The time that your decision-making in this scenario takes buys the attacking team precious space, and while Italy don’t have the same level of complexity to their attack as Rob Baxter’s side, they do have three able passers of the ball in Marcello Violi, Carlo Canna and Jayden Hayward, with Hayward’s late arrivals into the attacking line from full-back being particularly effective:
The manner in which these players bring the rest of their backline on to the ball at different angles is light years ahead of the blunt attack we saw from Italy in years gone by when they constantly crashed it up the middle through the likes of Alberto Sgarbi.
Having more than one player distribute gives Italy the best possible chance of getting their most dynamic ball-carriers, Jake Polledri and Braam Steyn, into the game, and the last thing Ireland want is these two charging on to the ball at pace in the wider channels:
Italy’s attacking shapes are a potential problem for Ireland because they are still getting caught defending narrowly, and have had trouble lately against teams who can get the ball wide quickly:
As bad as Italy’s results back in spring were (getting nilled twice in one Championship is unheard of these days), the have been playing with more width and adventure than what I expected pre-tournament. With a view to shutting down Italy’s wide-wide movements, a hard press on the Italian 10-12 axis to force mistakes from them with Garry Ringrose shooting up at Hayward if the ball gets as far as him would be a wise defensive strategy from Ireland in this game.
Despite what I have said recently about Ireland needing to tweak their attacking style, I think they’re going to roll out the classic Declan Kidney game plan of “wearing Italy down for the first 50 or 60 minutes” because this remains a weakness of the Azzurri, and it’s what Ireland are used to. Italy don’t have the same beef in the pack that they did in the Castrogiovanni years, and they struggle when teams soften them up with repeated close-in carries in the first half:
Although there is a need for Ireland to evolve in attack, using these tactics just for this game will allow them to get back into rhythm while reducing the likelihood of a spirited Italian comeback. The Azzurri showed against France that they are never quite dead and buried, even when down by a massive margin, so if Ireland can take the legs out from under them with one-out carrying sequences in the opening stages, there should be space to exploit in the second half:
The make-up of Andy Farrell’s staring team and bench would certainly indicate that this is going to be his strategy this weekend; the pack (back row especially) seems to be geared to pulverise Italy with heavy-duty carrying, and if they start gassing out in the second half, Dave Heffernan, Ed Byrne and Ultan Dillane are ideal replacements for running into space, with zippy passing from Jamison Gibson-Park not giving Smith’s side a minute to catch their breath.
The smartest thing to do when playing a team that you’re told are inferior to you is to prepare as if they are going to be at their absolute best because it prevents you from slipping up against them. Italy are unlikely to be as dire as they were against Wales in Round 1, and the lockdown will have given Smith more than enough time to get his charges more familiar with his playing philosophy. Benetton have made Leinster look ordinary in their last few meetings, and with much of the same personnel involved on Saturday, it wouldn’t be a complete surprise if something similar happened.
With the exception of 2019, Ireland’s displays against Italy during the last World Cup cycle were patient and controlled, with early tries sapping Azzurri confidence, leading to hugely impressive scorelines. It’s asking a lot of Ireland to produce a similar performance having not played together for eight months, but if they are to win in Paris next weekend, they could do with a confidence boost this Saturday.
Johnny Sexton has spoken about how he ruminated over the England defeat during lockdown, and although other players in this Irish squad have claimed otherwise, there is no doubt that it has been at the forefront of their minds for the last six months. If that frustration can be channelled properly, Farrell’s team could return with a bang. The enforced break appears to have reenergised many of his starting XV (CJ Stander and Bundee Aki in particular have been playing like men possessed since the PRO14 resumed), so here’s hoping for a resurgent performance from the men in green.