While I wouldn’t go as far as saying that Ireland’s 7-try rout of Italy yesterday has made them world-beaters again, they certainly did get everything they needed and wanted in Rome. They have had landslide wins against Italy but struggled against the better teams in this tournament before, and although a 48-10 victory against a game Italy side will no doubt lift them, a similar scoreline against the same opponent last year wasn’t followed up with wins against the likes of England.
All the same, Ireland can only play what is in front of them, and they took apart an Azzurri side who have been threatening to push on to another level on their home patch. Their lineout and maul were somewhat disappointing, but there were plenty of pleasing aspects to what they did on the day, and a resounding win was crucial midway through what has proven to be a tougher Championship for them than expected.
Hammer & Tong
It was clear from Ireland’s first period of sustained possession that they were intent on grounding the Italian pack into dust. The selections of Dave Kilcoyne, Rónan Kelleher, Tadhg Furlong and Will Connors (plus Tadhg Beirne at 6) looked to be geared towards this, and having so many ball-carriers in the pack definitely gave Ireland the edge around the fringes:
These punishing carries rocked Italy back on their heels, giving Ireland the platform to launch big openside plays, which were highly effective against a defence that afforded them a lot of space out wide:
Ireland were equally superb in defence (in spite of the sucker-punch Johan Meyer try on the stroke of half-time), with the same tenacity and hunger characterising their work off the ball. Paolo Garbisi has been a dangerous runner in this competition, but Ireland removed him from the equation for the most part. Their line speed and ferocity in the tackle prevented the Italian pack from generating forward momentum, and getting passes away was a challenge for their back line:
Ireland were determined to make life difficult at source for Italy as well, with powerful breakdown jackalling and counter-rucking causing havoc for Callum Braley:
The Will Connors tackle/Tadhg Beirne jackal combination has been a fruitful one for Ireland, and their ability to disrupt the ruck bodes well ahead of their clashes with Scotland and England because Ali Price and Ben Youngs have been in top form in recent weeks, and neither can be permitted to have clean ruck-ball.
Despite being in a different league to Italy, Ireland weren’t faultless yesterday. The elements of their game that weren’t quite up to scratch in Rounds 1 and 2 (namely the finer points of their attack) still haven’t been refined as much as they would need to be in order to beat Scotland or England. They can’t be accused of dropping their intensity in this match (which teams often do when they pull ahead on the scoreboard), but there remains room for improvement in the detail of their attacking play.
Even though they did put together several impressive wide movements in this fixture, Ireland’s passing wasn’t always as slick as it should be for a team who want to be more expansive, and this hindered some of their attempts to get the ball beyond second-receiver:
This example was especially frustrating because Keith Earls had acres of space in front of him, and if the ball had gone into his hands swiftly, a try would have been on provided the Irish support runners were up to speed.
Mike Catt was heavily criticised in the build-up to this game for his assertation that his players weren’t making good decisions in attack, but when you see clips like the below, it’s hard to argue with him:
Garry Ringrose gets high-quality ball to work with here, and chooses to run cross-field before kicking directly to Jacopo Trulla. There is space outside him for James Lowe to run into when the ball comes into his hands, though, so if Ringrose had straightened up (and maybe darted back infield) to draw the Italian edge defenders before passing to Lowe, it would have preserved the space that was there, and Ireland could have made a massive gain.
The most glaring flaw in Ireland’s attack yesterday, however, was the loss of shape in the last quarter. The stop-start nature of the game and puzzling officiating didn’t help them in this regard, but it doesn’t excuse the poor execution that we saw from them in places:
This loop play was obviously designed to narrow the Italian defence close-in to create a chasm of space for Hugo Keenan to surge into, but the players involved were too clustered, Billy Burns’ slide across was too lateral and Keenan seemed to over-run his line. These moments are worrying when you consider that Ireland had two playmakers on the field in the final 10 minutes, and a more alert counter-attacking opponent could hurt Ireland badly if they keep turning the ball over like this because of their own substandard organisation.
One of the talking points after this match was Ireland’s under-utilisation of James Lowe, but upon second viewing, the left winger had a more influential game than appeared at first glance (115 metres run/2 clean breaks/4 defenders beaten). The general consensus that he is being wasted by kicking the ball more frequently than he does when playing for Leinster doesn’t factor in how sterner defences are at Test level compared to the Pro14 (Italy’s efforts in this area yesterday notwithstanding).
That being said, I think Ireland could do with deploying him as a crash-runner at first-receiver earlier in games to compress the opposition defence later on because they are going to have a harder time finding space at the edge of the defence against Scotland and England than they did yesterday. They used Lowe as a distributor in this position against France with the aim of attracting defenders, but his breaking threat has to be established first before using him as a decoy in this part of the field.
On the other side of the ball, Ireland’s positioning of Jamison Gibson-Park at the edge of their defensive line after first-phase backfired. I highlighted the danger of Johan Meyer running in the wider channels pre-game, and the Zebre flanker made more ground down the touch-line than Ireland would have liked:
Having Conor Murray carry out this role makes sense, but Gibson-Park doesn’t have the same size or physicality as the Munster scrumhalf. If Murray doesn’t start against Scotland, then Ireland have to shelve this tactic because Duhan van der Merwe has had roughly the same impact as a steam train in the tramlines for Gregor Townsend’s side.
A Step In The Right Direction?
The main concern from this victory from an Irish perspective is that they had to revert back to forward dominance to win, a reliance that they have been trying to move away from since the end of 2019. Andy Farrell picked the biggest pack available to him (with the exception of Gavin Coombes) and the benefits of having two flankers who are over 6’4” were plain to see, but the idea behind Ireland’s 1-3-2-2 attacking shape is to play around a side disadvantage if they are facing a bigger opponent.
Maybe having Tadhg Beirne and Will Connors in the back row will give Ireland a greater chance of bossing the majority of the collisions against Scotland or England, but it’s unlikely, and if that doesn’t come to pass against either of those teams and their attack doesn’t fire on all cylinders, then they will be back to square one. That might sound glass half-empty, but if Ireland continue to beat Italy soundly before falling short against stronger opponents, then sooner or later, that will become their ceiling.