Italy getting a losing bonus point from their clash with France in Round 1 was lauded by many, but the truth is it was mere consolation for them. They had a chance to win the game in the dying stages, and if not for a string of errors in the first quarter, they would have been ahead on the scoreboard at that point anyway, and that was even without their star out-half Paolo Garbisi.
Outscoring England in the second half in Round 2 was impressive as well, especially when you consider the massive losing margins Italy have had in Twickenham down the years, so on top of having a better squad, their players have become more resilient under their new head coach. The 2022 Six Nations wasn’t a vintage one for Italy, but now that Kieran Crowley has settled in, there are noticeable changes to the detail of how the Azzurri go about their business, and Ireland will need to take heed of this, as the outcome of this fixture isn’t necessarily a foregone conclusion.
Italy’s attack has changed considerably to what they produced under Franco Smith. With the South African in charge, they spread themselves out and went wide-wide as often as possible in an attempt to avoid heavy collisions around the fringes and aggressive midfield defences, but a lot of the time, it was to their own detriment. They usually burned themselves out doing so, and ended up knocking the ball on or conceding jackal penalties in wider channels.
Under Kieran Crowley, they use their players in a much more concentrated way, with groups of deep-stacked runners placed at different points across the pitch, with the front man carrying aggressively and the players behind him offering offloading/back-door passing options. This forces defences to hesitate but also gives Italy numbers to pile through into the breakdown once they do decide to carry:
In Round 2, they used the same shape, but with an interesting wrinkle of the scrum-half looping around the first-receiver in order to hold the inside defenders, which created space outside against an otherwise stubborn English defensive line:
Despite being mauled into the ground against England, personnel changes up front in the last 12 months have made Italy’s pack bigger and more explosive, and that combined with the above attacking shape means that they are now more penetrative with ball in hand.
Italy’s ball-retention has improved out of sight, too. They have the tactical awareness not to mess around too much with ball in hand, but they have also gotten more proficient at retaining possession and patiently working teams around the fringes.
Previously, they would have kicked the ball away after a few ineffective phases, but now they have the capacity to apply genuine pressure to teams with one-out forward carries, and in this regard, their composure, breakdown technique and intensity in contact in the red zone in particular are excellent:
Ireland spent the middle part of their fixture with Wales under the pump in their own half, and while they got away with only conceding seven points in that period, Italy will be much more clinical in those types of situations.
Misery Loves Company
Italy have conceded the joint-highest number of tries in the Championship thus far, but don’t be deceived into thinking that they are porous defensively. It’s worth noting that their opening games in this year’s competition have been against France and England, teams who normally put over 50 points on them, so limiting said opponents to just 4 and 5 tries respectively is a vast improvement.
Rather than having their defence race up as a uniform line the way most teams operate nowadays, Italy instead deploy an old-fashioned shooter when it comes to defending out wide, and it has been more then effective for them, shutting down potent French and English backline movements before they can amount to anything:
Being dragged from one side of the pitch to the other is something that opponents have done to exhaust Italy over the course of the game for a long time, and the above tactic is a clear effort on Italy’s part to prevent this from happening to them.
It’s not the only thing Italy do to stymie opposition attacking efforts, though. They have been quite competitive on the ground lately, and have been rewarded with poach penalties for their work in this area:
Again, Italy’s aim by doing the above is to avoid long periods of defence against teams who are trying to fatigue them, and it’s a concern for Ireland because their multi-phase attack relies on having quick ruck ball, and when France, South Africa and Australia discommoded them in this department last year, they couldn’t fire on all cylinders, so their clearing out will need to be fast and accurate.
Over And Around
Taking into account Italy’s respective strengths and weaknesses (and the selection of Ross Byrne at 10), I think we’re going to see Ireland kick a lot more against them than in previous years. Holding on to the ball against the Azzurri isn’t going to yield as much of a return as before given their newfound defensive system and grit, so territory takes on greater importance. A repeat of the low, stabbing box-kicks and raking touch-finders that we saw from Ireland in the second half against France are in order so as to keep Italy pinned back deep in their own territory, as the Azzurri struggled with this when England did it to them in Twickenham.
They demonstrated in the first quarter against France that they can be rushed into handling errors deep in their own half, and even though their maul defence against the same opposition was good, the same couldn’t be said when they squared off against the English pack, so forcing them into kick-returns from deep will give Ireland lineouts in advantageous positions between halfway and the Italian ten-metre line, and it’s an even more enticing prospect when you see how much space they can leave in the backfield:
In terms of where to go after Italy with ball in hand, midfield crashes will play right into the hands of their aforementioned shooter defence, but there is space in their defence near either touch-line if Ireland can get the ball there because Italy have a habit of narrowing in from the edge, and often get caught short of numbers in the process.
It’s strange that their last defender pushes in so far given that they are not leading the defence. Most teams blitz from the edge, but as shown earlier, that isn’t the case with Italy, so having the last man in the line leave so much space outside him but without rushing up to pressurise the pass leaves them in no man’s land where they get the worst of both worlds:
It’s something they do frequently not just out wide, but on the blind side, too, and Ireland’s dynamic pack could make hay in this area:
Caelan Doris’ wonder-offload against France is a once-in-a-series kind of play, but Ireland regularly overload the blind side to good effect, so it would be no surprise if they go after that space again on Saturday.
Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don’t
Beating Italy is something that traditionally ‘bigger’ sides don’t really get credit for; if an Ireland/England/Wales/France/southern hemisphere team put a huge scoreline on them, the general reaction is that they achieved the bare minimum, but if the same teams scrape a win over the Azzurri, it’s perceived as an underperformance and the alarm bells start ringing in the media.
In 2013, England were on course to win a Grand Slam after going 3 from 3, but their cohesion went out the window when they made wholesale changes to their matchday squad to face the Azzurri in Round 4, and ended up having to scrap for a seven-point win at home. It had a significant deflating effect on their squad, and they ended up being hammered by Wales a week later, giving up the Championship title in the process.
Ireland’s matches with Italy in this World Cup cycle have primarily been used as confidence-boosting efforts to rack up big scores following defeats to the better sides in the tournament, but the playing field has changed. Andy Farrell’s team are deservedly in the hunt for a Grand Slam, but this will not be as one-sided a match-up as in the past, and Ireland’s selection reflects that. Any away win in the Six Nations is valuable, but Ireland need to put in another convincing performance too if they want to maintain momentum.