Ireland are no stranger to scares against (or losses to) Italy, but while encounters like the RWC 2015 pool clash or the 2019 Six Nations game were attributed to an underperformance on the part of the men in green, Saturday’s contest between the two sides was close for different reasons. Andy Farrell’s side will receive their fair share of criticism in the media, but it is worth noting that they started 7 non first-choice players due to injury/squad rotation, including Bundee Aki playing out of position due to Garry Ringrose’s late withdrawal.
A full-strength France side conceded more and scored less points than Ireland in the same venue against the same team in Round 1, and the winning margin was almost the same as England’s when they played the Azzurri at home. There’s definitely plenty to pick over ahead of Ireland’s trip to Murrayfield, but the perception that it was a poor performance that derailed their Championship hopes is inaccurate, and doesn’t give credit where its due to an Italian team that are now genuine competitors in this tournament.
Garry Ringrose has been one of the form players in Ireland this season, and while he had his highlight-reel moment with the bonus point try against France, his defensive organisation is vital for club and country. 13 remains the most difficult position to play defensively, and Ireland’s defence has always been more flexible when Ringrose starts.
That’s not a dig at any of the other players who have played the position for Ireland in the last few years; indeed we have seen Robbie Henshaw has put in some stellar performances in the 13 jersey as recently as last year, but Ringrose has that natural outside centre’s ability to constantly assess multiple threats and alternate between sliding across and blitzing depending on what the situation calls for.
Defending at inside centre is different in that it involves more straight-line running and up-and-down movement as opposed to sliding across (as well as covering less space), and the fact that both of Ireland’s starting centres on Saturday do the former out of habit led to some disconnects between them and their wingers early in the game:
This did improve after the opening minutes, though, with more patient reading and better connectivity from Ireland’s midfield, closing down Italy’s space, on top of Ireland doing a better job of pressurising their passing and blitzing when the time was right:
The above isn’t a slight on Bundee Aki at all; the Connacht stalwart is a fantastic competitor and one of the biggest personalities and leaders in this Irish team, but this game goes to show how crucial having a natural 13 is. Jamie Osborne is uncapped and James Hume is out of the picture at the moment, and even though Farrell’s hand was forced by Ringrose’s injury, Saturday was a timely reminder for Ireland as to how bad Ireland can get caught out by taking a positional risk against a good side.
Ireland could have been forgiven for keeping their cards close to their chest with regards to their attacking plays because they were facing a supposedly weaker team, but they stuck to their guns and persisted with being creative and adventurous with ball in hand. In the first half, they dominated more of the collisions and weren’t afraid to offload on the back of doing so, with some excellent interplay between forwards and backs:
They also chose to roll out the playbook for their wide movements, with the usual complexity and skill levels that we have come to expect from them when they go beyond first-receiver.
Hugo Keenan did superbly to break free from contact and finish in the below clip, but the chance was created as a result of good attacking shape and convincing animation off the ball:
When battering away at the Italian defence in the red zone wasn’t working, Ireland weren’t afraid to change it up, with a late sweep and dextrous handling in confined spaces producing the space for Mack Hansen’s first try:
The intricate attacking system that took so long to fine-tune when Mike Catt first came onboard has become more and more accurate with each series of games that Ireland play, and now looks to have reached a point where it is second nature to everyone in the squad.
Although Ireland didn’t hold back on attacking intent, they weren’t averse to making tweaks when required. Going wide-wide started to play into Italy’s hands in the second half, and when Ireland found themselves making errors and getting on the wrong side of Mike Adamson in their own half, they showed their tactical nous by using the boot to move themselves down the pitch:
They knew that as the game stayed tight, mistakes were going to be costly for either side, and Italy do have a penchant for running from deep. Given that Ireland had largely solved their problems in defence from the first half, they made the right call by giving Italy the ball deep in their own half, and then snaring them behind the gain line with aggressive line speed.
From the end of the second half, Italy’s defence in the wider channels was starting to cause Ireland some consternation, and after Pierre Bruno’s intercept, Ireland recognised the need to avoid letting them make big plays in this area, so they stated working them tighter the fringes with shorter-range passes:
It was telling that the try that broke the Italian resistance came from this type of play, but a huge factor in Ireland changing their approach was Conor Murray’s introduction to proceedings. Ireland’s long-serving scrum-half has suffered personal turmoil in recent weeks, but he has silenced his critics in this Championship with some outstanding displays. I fully expect Jamison Gibson-Park to be starting for Ireland by the time they play England, but Murray’s importance to his team’s silverware ambitions can’t be in question anymore.
Sharpening The Edge
While it took Ireland until the 70th minute to pull away from the hosts, they did have two tries chalked off earlier in the game, and they were close to scoring another at the death, too. Any one of those scores would have pushed them over the 40-point mark, but the narrower winning margin that they ended up with will stand to them for a number of reasons.
Andy Farrell has spoken a lot about wanting his players to deal with adversity and their ‘next man off the rank’ mentality, and Saturday proved to them and everyone else that they are capable of beating a good team despite being at near half-strength, so their squad depth has been given a proper test. Ross Byrne handled himself well across the 80 minutes, and starting a significant game will do Craig Casey the world of good.
More importantly, being given a fright in the manner that they did means that there is little chance of Irish complacency going into their clash with Scotland. Ireland’s meetings with Scotland have taken on a certain level of spikiness lately, and they are always happy to upset Irish title hopes, but Gregor Townsend’s side are a serious force to be reckoned with this year based on their performances in Rounds 1 to 3, so a tough outing on Saturday was ideal in terms of focusing Irish minds ahead of their trip to Murrayfield.