A huge win over Italy this weekend won’t necessarily solve the problems that Ireland had against France, but it will go a long way towards restoring the confidence they lost in that fixture ahead of a tough trip to Twickenham. Andy Farrell has made several changes to his matchday squad, which is understandable, given the bruising encounter his team had in Paris, and Ireland have the luxury of having numerous in-form fringe players who can inject confidence back into the side after such a chastening defeat.
That being said, it would be foolish of Ireland to expect to walk over Italy by just turning up this weekend. The Azzurri’s scorelines against France and England in this competition might suggest the usual hammerings, but they have actually been competitive and harder to break down defensively under the stewardship of Kieran Crowley. Despite failing to register a score against England, their attacking play has been adventurous as well, and considering the issues that Ireland had out wide defensively against France, they will need to be mindful of the threats that Italy pose with ball in hand.
Similar to how Benetton Treviso played under Crowley, Italy have been moving the ball wide regularly, with good handling and convincing decoy pods creating space in the wider channels for their wingers. It’s a wise strategy as it plays to Italy’s strengths and avoids their weaknesses; they don’t have the size in their relatively small/light front five to trouble teams in the close-quarters exchanges, but their wingers have plenty of pace and power.
Both Monty Ioane and Pierre Bruno are quick enough to break down the touch-line if they are afforded any space, and have the strength in contact to fight post-tackle until the support arrives. They key to getting them into this space is Italy’s use of bridge passes to get the ball over the head of the last opposition defenders. It’s intelligent play because it gets around aggressive blitzing from edge defenders, which is a feature of most defences nowadays:
This is a concern for Ireland as France used this tactic against them to great effect. In the example below, Antoine Dupont identifies the space outside Jamison Gibson-Park and takes advantage of it with a superb bridge pass that gets well beyond the Irish scrum-half:
Ireland may need to stretch out their defensive line in order to counteract this as defending as narrowly as they have against Wales and France will play into Italy’s hands. France and England eventually pulled ahead on the scoreboard against the Azzurri in Rounds 1 and 2, but Italy never really lost their competitive spirit in either match, and if Ireland give them room to manoeuvre in the tramlines early on this weekend, it could encourage them into making the game a serious contest.
Going after their opponent in the middle of their defensive line doesn’t yield much of a return for Italy as their forwards aren’t huge or explosive even when taking the ball as the second or third man out from the ruck, and as physical as Ignacio Brex is in contact, he’s not a massive gain line merchant, either. Instead of running into the jaws of the opposition defence, Italy frequently work the blind side by overloading it as well as having Stephen Varney taking a step before passing to fix defenders in order to exploit the space in this area:
On top of generating big gains for them, this tactic forces the opposition to drag numbers away from the open side, creating more space there for Italy on the subsequent phase. This is where defensive numbering will be crucial for Ireland. Too few players on the blind side and Italy will tear them up, but if they overcommit to that area, then it leaves them short of numbers on the open side, making them vulnerable to the aforementioned bridge passes.
Moving The Pieces
As shown above, Italy tend to struggle when the game is played between the 15-metre lines because that’s where the majority of the heavier collisions happen, and they are at something of a disadvantage in the forwards. Their kicking strategy in turn reflects this, with their kicks being tight to or aimed towards the touch-line but infield:
The idea behind this is to prevent their opponent from running the ball up the middle of the pitch and then start going through the phases from halfway, which is a scenario Italy want to avoid. Their box-kicking (which they do more than any other side in the Championship) is particularly impressive, with the kicks being accurate and the chase being well-organised and aggressive.
Even when Italy don’t win the ball back, this tactic still forces bigger packs to move up and down the field, and the quality of the chase unsettles the opposition backfield. They waste no time in going to the boot if their attack isn’t making headway, even kicking from halfway as we saw above. The keeping of the ball in play is the most important aspect for Italy, though, as their maul defence leaves a lot to be desired:
The breakaway from the tail of the maul from Josh van der Flier has become a staple of Ireland’s attacking play, but I would expect them to keep the ball in for longer this Sunday to see what kind of ground they can make before launching their attack.
So, how do Ireland force Italy into playing in the game in the areas where they are weak and Ireland are strong? If Ireland were to kick centrally and deep into the Italian half and then move their wingers into the backfield while doing so to patrol the touch-lines for the Italian kick-return, they can then pass the ball infield quickly to Michael Lowry so that he can race back at them to get Ireland good field position for the starting point of their attack.
From there, they would be well-served by hammering Italy around the fringes of the ruck as their defence can be somewhat soft in that zone:
If Ireland can make headway close to the breakdown and Italy start putting in soak tackles, then they can start pouring support runners through the gap for the Irish ball-carrier to get the offload away to.
There was always going to be a comedown for Ireland at some point after they beat the All Blacks last November, and although their physical battering at the hands of Les Bleus was quite sobering, they will need to pick themselves up immediately because they have some difficult fixtures left in this competition, not to mention a tour of New Zealand on the horizon. Positive momentum will be required if they are to be competitive against England in two weeks’ time, or against a Scotland team who have pushed on to another level.
Ireland’s general squad mentality under Andy Farrell has been more relaxed than his predecessor, and while neither approach is perfect, a loss isn’t something that this group are going to fixate as intensely on as they would have done under Joe Schmidt. That’s not to say that they are happy to lose; their disappointment after the defeat to France was there for all to see, but there seems to be a greater acceptance that not everything goes their way.
It’s an important trait for a team who have already stated that they are building longer-term for next year’s World Cup, as they have some big challenges ahead of them between now and then, but it is vital that they respond well and quickly to setbacks. Beating Italy by a large margin won’t automatically make them a world class side again, and it probably won’t be until the England game that we get another demonstration of how they cope with a team who bring incredible power, but a statement win will remind everyone (including themselves) that they are still a force to be reckoned with.