Andy Farrell has taken something of a gamble with his team selection to face Italy on Saturday, but he is a coach under pressure, and this is a must-win game for Ireland. Supporters’ patience is starting to wear thin with the perpetual state of transition that Ireland seem to have been in since the end of 2019, and the promises that were made by Farrell and Mike Catt with regards to revolutionising Ireland’s attack haven’t yet been fully delivered on.
Paul O’Connell having such an immediate influence on Ireland’s lineout/breakdown and John Fogarty improving their scrum out of sight after a below par 2020 doesn’t paint Farrell or Catt in a good light by comparison, and given that we are at the midpoint of this World Cup cycle, difficult questions will be asked of this coaching ticket if their team don’t really hit their straps soon.
Ireland’s only saving grace is that they have the weakest team in the tournament up next, but this Azzurri side should not be taken lightly. Ireland may have beaten them by a huge margin last October, but they are a different prospect at home, and better than their scorelines against France and England suggest. If Ireland take a big, confidence-boosting victory win on Saturday for granted, an upset could be on the cards.
Pedal To The Metal
The usual script for beating Italy by a landslide is to soften their pack up with bruising forward play, and then run in tries when they are out on their feet but the last year has shown that they are now adept at hanging in until the death (scoring late tries in several games), and their defence in the tight phases has improved technically, as well as becoming more hard-edged.
Despite being taken apart by England’s maul later on in the game, some of Italy’s defensive efforts in this department were first-rate. Eddie Jones went with a powerful, lock heavy pack after his side’s loss to Scotland, but Italy stymied their early catch-and-drives with a well-constructed counter-maul, and high levels of aggression:
The Irish pack are closer in size to Wales than they are to England or France, so it is instructive to look how the Azzurri disrupted Wales in this phase of play in the Autumn Nations Cup. Wayne Pivac’s pack do make a few metres in the example below, but Italy manage to split their maul in two, forcing it to go to ground, with Wales losing the momentum they had generated:
What has actually caused Italy the greatest discomfort lately is constantly moving the point of attack with high-tempo, multi-phase attack. Ireland stretched them last October by alternating between short carries and wide movements, with the Azzurri not realigning quickly enough:
Ireland have made no secret of their aim to be more expansive in attack, and considering the return they got from it the last time they played Italy, you would presume they will repeat the dose, particularly with the paucity of international experience that the Azzurri have in their starting back line.
Ireland shouldn’t have any shortage of possession this Saturday because Italy have a habit of inviting the opposition to run the ball at them by kicking too long down the middle of the pitch. Even against an English team with devastating counter-attackers like Jonny May, Anthony Watson and Elliot Daly, Franco Smith’s side persisted with this tactic:
While Ireland aren’t as potent on kick transition as Eddie Jones’ team, it is an aspect of their game that they are trying to refine, and Hugo Keenan has been near-faultless in his backfield work in this tournament. If he and James Lowe and Jordan Larmour, are afforded the type of space on transition that we see Italy give England in the above clip, they won’t be shy about exploiting it.
Turnovers on the floor should be a reliable source of possession for Ireland, too, because Italy are prone to leaving the ball exposed at the base of the ruck, and Maro Itoje and co. caused them no end of trouble in this area in Twickenham two weeks ago:
Tadhg Beirne has demonstrated his ability to take advantage of these openings and Ireland in general have been more competitive at the breakdown, so if Italy continue in this vein, Ireland will have a field day on the deck.
In spite of the above, attack is only half the game, and racking up tries is no use to Ireland if they are conceding just as many. Their focus in this fixture will be on dominating territory and possession by making sizeable gains through running the ball, but they can’t expect to have a total monopoly on either. They must be careful about how they go about their business when Italy are in possession because the home side have a wide range attacking weapons.
The introduction of Stephen Varney to their starting XV has drastically enhanced their ability to hurt teams around the fringes. The Gloucester scrum-half brings excellent variety to Italy’s use of their forward runners, putting them into space instead of crashing headfirst into the nearest tackler, and he isn’t afraid of having a cut himself:
Positioning Braam Steyn and Jake Polledri in the wider channels was a prominent feature of Italy’s attacking play last year, but even though both are injured, they haven’t discarded this ploy, with Johan Meyer excelling in this role:
The one player that has stood out for Italy in attack in recent months, though, has been Paolo Garbisi. The Benetton out-half has every string to his bow that you could want in a 10, but what sets him apart is the calm use of his impressive pace and footwork to step inside or outside of overeager blitz defenders to break the line:
Franco Smith has obviously recognised this because Garbisi always has support runners on both shoulders, and he has the awareness and skill levels to link up with them when he gets in behind the front line of the defence:
It didn’t take long for Italy’s opponents to become alert to the threat that Garbisi poses with ball in hand, but when faced with a rush defence that are breathing down his neck, he has the wherewithal to stab short-range kicks in behind:
How do Ireland counter all of the above? Their fringe defenders will need to get back to their feet swiftly and stay connected to negate Varney and Garbisi, and aggressive line speed and high-intensity tackling will be required from James Lowe and Keith Earls to prevent Meyer from charging down the touch-line. Most importantly, Ireland have to make sure that they don’t switch off in the closing minutes like they did against Italy last year, even if they are over the horizon on the scoreboard.
Shot In The Arm
Taking into account how jaded some of Ireland’s players have looked in the first two rounds of this tournament, you can understand why Andy Farrell has selected changed things up. Exuberance of youth and increased squad competition are often the best means of rejuvenation, something that Ireland need badly, especially with the tough fixtures that they have yet to play in this Championship.
Scotland were good value for their win over England (on a different day the winning margin would have been greater), and the performance of their front five in that game showed that they won’t be bullied in the pack anymore. Eddie Jones’ side will still be hurting, and the root cause of their loss to Scotland (the lack of match sharpness of the relegated Saracens players) won’t be an issue for them when they have played four consecutive Tests.
With question marks over Ireland’s starters in Rounds 1 and 2, there is the potential for the players who are being handed opportunities in this match to make a case for their inclusion in the starting XV going forward. Dave Kilcoyne, Tadhg Furlong and Iain Henderson all could have been first-choice players for Ireland if they were fully-fit at the start of February, and Will Connors was Ireland’s starting openside in the second half of 2020. It is vital that they (along with the other players on the bench) provide impact in order to reinvigorate the rest of the squad.