At first glance, a 51-point winning margin against any Tier 1 side would appear to be the stuff of dreams, but when you consider the fact that Ireland had a 2-man advantage for over 60 minutes, it eradicates pretty much any satisfaction that can be taken from the result. 7 of Ireland’s starting XV weren’t first-choice, and Italy remained dogged in their efforts after going down to 13, but Ireland have their work cut out for them ahead of their Round 4 clash with England.
Laurel & Hardy
Given that Ireland scored nine tries in the Aviva Stadium yesterday, it’s strange to criticise their work with ball in hand, but a lot of what they produced offensively was sub-par. Their multi-layered attacking shape has been praised by pundits and analysts alike, but it only works when players time their runs to near-perfection. That wasn’t the case yesterday, as on several occasions, the support players overran their line, taking themselves out of the equation as passing options:
In other instances, the receivers got caught out standing too flat, forcing the player in possession to readjust before throwing the pass, thereby taking the sting out of the attack:
Even when players did delay their run properly, there were some uncharacteristic handling errors which put Ireland on the back foot, or wasted try-scoring chances:
The most disappointing aspect of Ireland’s attack, though, was the fact that their problems at the breakdown from the France game continued, even though Italy exerted much less pressure on them in this area than Les Bleus did. Ireland’s were slow in their arrival to the contact zone and the quality of their rucking left a lot to be desired, with some players missing the mark completely with their clear-outs:
This is concerning because Ireland’s remaining opponents in this competition could cause them significant trouble in this facet of the game. Tom Curry is a classic poaching 7, and Maro Itoje is a world class groundhog who turned England’s game against Wales in his team’s favour with his disruption on the floor. Scotland have unearthed another quality flanker in Rory Darge, and with Hamish Watson likely to be fit for Round 5, Ireland will have a battle to secure clean ruck ball when Scotland come to the Aviva.
Even though they weren’t anywhere near as clinical as they should have been with the advantage they had in terms of numbers, Ireland did produce some decent attacking movements in this game. The zones in the Italian defence that they attacked off set-pieces were of particular interest, with a quick change of direction being used to devastating effect.
In both of the examples below, Ireland opt for a maul feint to tie up the Italian pack before crashing it up in midfield. Italy anticipated another phase in the same direction, but Ireland instead target the blind spot in the defence on the other side, which is left unguarded due to the Italian defenders still reorganising themselves:
Going same-way in attack plays into the hands of a rush defence as they use big numbers on the open side to bring incredible line speed. Andy Farrell and Mike Catt are sure to be mindful of Ireland getting into the habit of doing so ahead of the England game, so it’s possible that they had them hone switch-plays yesterday.
This would also explain why they attacked the blind side so frequently against Italy. They got a huge return from overloading this area against the Azzurri, with Jamison Gibson-Park fizzing passes directly to Mack Hansen and James Lowe off mauls and in phase play for big gains down the touch-line:
It’s difficult for any team to blitz on the short side as doing so in less space is more challenging, and it’s a riskier tactic when you try it with less numbers. Ireland profited greatly from going after this space against England last year, and they would be wise to do so again next weekend, as making ground against England on the open side is something that teams have found challenging in this Championship.
Despite them being 2 wins from 3 games, it’s hard to shake the feeling that Ireland haven’t played all that well in this Championship. Notching a bonus point against a struggling Wales side wasn’t overly impressive in hindsight, they started dreadfully against France and were error-strewn throughout that fixture, and this performance is one of the most anticlimactic I’ve seen from them in a long time.
Yes, there have been mitigating circumstances such as Johnny Sexton being injured for the France game, and the stop-start nature of the Italy game, plus the injuries/squad rotation were bound to affect their cohesion yesterday, but they will need to find another gear before going to Twickenham. After a bad start to the tournament, Eddie Jones’ side were formidable in the physical exchanges against Wales on Saturday, and Ireland struggled when France applied the same type of pressure to them.
They are guaranteed to raise their intensity levels, but it is the accuracy of their multi-faceted attacking play that will need to improve if they are to be competitive against England. It was noticeable that they were much sharper when Sexton entered the fray, which bodes well if he is fit to start in London next weekend, but at the same time, it is worrying that they are so reliant on him to keep their standards high. Either way, they cannot afford to have such a high error count, as England will be merciless in their punishment of any mistakes.