The biggest question mark hanging over Ireland going into this match was whether or not they would heed the lessons of their hammering from England and uninspiring win over Scotland and adjust their game plan accordingly. That’s no disrespect to Italy; there were glimpses of what they are capable of back in the spring, but when it became clear yesterday that their performance levels and cohesion weren’t any better since before COVID struck, an Irish win was a foregone conclusion.
After labouring for the first half, Ireland ultimately came through in fine style, and there were signs that they are growing into the brand of play that their new coaching ticket have envisioned, on top of demonstrating a flexibility with regards to the new law interpretations. When you add in the successful blooding of new players and improved set-pieces, it was as good a hit-out as their coaches and supporters could have hoped for.
Adapt And Overcome
Much like Ireland overdid the one-out carrying phases in the dying stages of Joe Schmidt’s tenure, they were too focused on retaining possession and moving the ball wide in the early days of Andy Farrell’s reign. This was a significant factor in their loss to England this year, but encouragingly, Ireland seem to have learned from that chastening defeat, because they had no hesitation putting boot to ball, even when they had momentum:
Kicking the ball when you aren’t making any headway is a necessary evil, but Ireland refused to do so in Twickenham back in February, even though England had figured out their attack and smashed them backwards in every collision. Kicking when you are making inroads is important too because, as discussed before, it makes your opponent second-guess themselves, and variation is key to effective attacking play.
In saying that, attacking intricacy is irrelevant if you don’t have a solid platform and the improvements in Ireland’s scrum and maul from what we saw against Scotland and England were heartening:
It has been noticeable since rugby resumed that Leinster have struggled with the increased level of competition that referees are allowing at the breakdown. It’s a tweak that is less than ideal for a team who like to play keep-ball, and given that Ireland have played a similar type of rugby for the last few years (as well as defended in the same manner as Leinster), it was a cause for concern for them, too. However, their tenacity at the breakdown showed that they have made the required changes:
Andrew Porter and Tadhg Beirne stood out with regards to jackalling work, but you could see that there was a concerted effort on the part of the entire matchday 23 to poach the ball on the ground. This bodes well for next week because France are a team who you don’t want to give clean possession to with the dangerous attacking threats that they have in their ranks.
The one area that was a worry for Ireland against Italy was the scrappiness of their first-phase attack:
It’s probably harsh to criticise Ireland for the intercept try, as this can happen to any player/team, but their passing in that sequence was stilted and their runners static. If the move had been more polished in its execution with more depth and conviction from the running lines of the backs, I don’t think Edoardo Padovani would have been able to pick Johnny Sexton’s pass off so easily.
Although it was their first game together in eight months, Ireland’s launch plays will need to be smoother because France’s line speed is highly aggressive under Shaun Edwards. If Ireland couldn’t get them right against an Italian defence that wasn’t anything special, Les Bleus could force several turnovers from them, and the last thing you want against the French backline is the ball going to deck.
Exuberance Of Youth
It’s difficult to know what team Farrell would have selected if this fixture had gone ahead in March as planned. The fallout from the England game and Italy’s form at the time would likely have led to squad rotation anyway, but the injection of youth into the squad based on form shown in the interim had a reinvigorating effect on Ireland yesterday.
Hugo Keenan has received high praise for scoring two tries on his debut (a dream first Test cap for any back three player), but his energy and hunger for work off the ball were equally impressive:
Keenan normally plays at full-back at club level, but the traits he displayed in this game are just as useful on the wing, and wherever he ends up playing for Leinster and Ireland, he is going to be a valuable asset.
It must be noted when reviewing Keenan’s performance how poor Italy were yesterday; apart from one lucky break at the start of the game, they didn’t bring any of their attacking strengths to the table, and that was largely down to the trojan defensive work of Will Connors at openside flanker:
There has been a fair amount of debate around Connors since his call-up to the Ireland squad, mainly around whether or not, at international level, you can afford to have a player in your team who does only one specific thing really well. That didn’t stop Dan Lydiate from having a brilliant career with Wales or becoming a starter for the British And Irish Lions, and most coaches would give their right arm for a player who is guaranteed to deny the opposition front-foot ball.
Jordan Larmour’s return or the opportunities that are sure to be handed to Shane Daly and Robert Baloucoune down the line could push Keenan out of the picture altogether, and Dan Leavy could come back and make the Ireland seven jersey his own again, but for now, Ireland now have two quality new additions to the their squad who could play vital roles next week, especially considering that Teddy Thomas isn’t the best aerial competitor, and that France’s attack could stutter if their ball-carriers are repeatedly chopped down at the ankles.
Contender For The Throne
Jordan Larmour’s performances in February left a lot to be desired, and while it’s unfortunate that his shoulder injury has denied him the opportunity to prove that he has developed his all-round play, it did open the door for Jacob Stockdale to put in a forceful performance in the 15 jersey. Pre-game, I was sceptical of the Ulsterman’s selection at full-back because of his recent form and that he, like Larmour, can falter when it comes to high balls and backfield coverage, but he gave Ireland an impetus in attack that will give Andy Farrell and Mike Catt food for thought.
It wasn’t a perfect performance from Stockdale; the foot in touch and aerial blunder were schoolboy errors, not to mention some below par kick-returns, but he was elusive on the counter-attack and in phase-play:
Shane Daly has been superb for Munster post-lockdown, and is definitely worth a look in the Autumn Nations Cup, but Stockdale has made a case for further selection, even if he wasn’t tested properly by Italy in terms of contestable kicks.
Ireland have the unenviable task of travelling to Paris next Saturday to play a resurgent French team, but they do have the slightest chance of winning this the Championship, and you would hope that would give them the motivation to pull off a remarkable win in the Stade de France. It is crucial that they find their rhythm in that fixture quicker than they did against the Azzurri, but yesterday’s match went as well as they could have imagined, with the exception of the consolation try.
A bonus-point victory over the French is a huge ask, and in the event that Ireland can’t achieve that, this tournament could come down to points difference. On yesterday’s evidence, England look set to rack up a massive score next Saturday, but unlike their Six Nations counterparts, Eddie Jones’ side don’t have the luxury of having played this weekend, and despite the criticism it receives for having a low entertainment quotient, this tournament has a way of throwing up surprises.