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There is nothing new to the idea of Irish traveling to Rome in search of salvation. It’s just that they usually have to work a little harder for their sins to be forgiven. Not yesterday.
The long and the short of it is Ireland did what it wanted to do with six tries on the way to a 38 point win, and it was hard to avoid raising an eyebrow than that old line about « no easy games in the six nations » was tricked out afterwards.
We heard the same thing last year; and the year before; also in the previous year. We could go on. The Italians have lost 30 points since beating Scotland in 2015. At this year’s World Cup, they gave Ireland seven points. The following results between the two nations tell their own story: Ireland won 58-15, 63-10, 56-19, 54-7, 26-16, 29-10, 50-17 and now 48-10.Far too often we have been guilty of unnecessary courtesy when it comes to Italy, but the truth is they have had 15 wooden spoons since they arrived in the Six Nations 21 years ago. Even Jamie Oliver doesn’t have such a large collection.
Irish players celebrate while Italy mourn.
Source: Tommy Dickson / INPHO
They are an average team from the start, they have gone backwards and backwards again. You just don’t get the impression that they will ever move forward. In the Pro14, Treviso has lost 12 out of 12 this season. Zebre has four wins but two of them were against Treviso. All bar two of the Italian squad are occupied by these clubs.
So this is the context by which we have to measure Ireland’s victory. Yes, they did a lot of things well in Rome. They were too quick and too smart on the breakdown, while their ball carriers – Robbie Henshaw in particular – regularly broke the payline. And that’s before we mention the smoothness of ball handling that led to these six attempts.
Even so, all plus signs in the Irish booklet must be footed. Competing against an Italian team that lost its three games in this year’s championship by an average of 33.66 points is one thing, against the Scots or the English is another.
Nonetheless, Jamison Gibson-Park later made an interesting point about it how relieved the Irish players were to finally have a win on the board, and just look to Wales to remember what can happen if you get a little momentum in this competition.
This is something that Scotland, Ireland’s next opponent, has lost. After beating England in the first round, the Scots were subsequently defeated by the Welsh and also by Covid-19. Due to today’s postponement, they will likely be idle for four weeks between their second and third game of this championship.
And suddenly Andy Farrell will be much happier with the prospect of going to Murrayfield, not least because of what he did yesterday has seen. Hugo Keenan, scorer of the second Irish attempt, was outstanding.
Henshaw, who made nine carrying games over 56 meters and completed 13 tackles, also impressed.
Will Connors, Tadhg Beirne, Dave Kilcoyne and Garry Ringrose as well. While giving the praise it has to be said that Gibson-Park is proving to be a better player than anyone will admit, while deputy Craig Casey continues to live up to expectations, delivering 22 passes in 18 minutes of action.
Connors runs in the first of his two attempts.
Source: Tommy Dickson / INPHO
We can move on. The set piece worked efficiently again. Paul O’Connell’s imprint in Ireland’s line-out was already visible on the first throw when Ronan Kelleher threw Henshaw over the top, a signal of Ireland’s intention.
Farrell has to be honored for that too. When he got to Rome from two to zero, he could easily have suggested a conservative outlook for the opening quarter. Instead, he encouraged his players to play with ambition and nerve.
On the other hand, when the opposition is so severely flawed, especially on defense and on breakdown, you can do pretty much anything you want. It wasn’t until Italy attacked that they formed impressively, but even here the slowness of their backball was shockingly bad.
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Ireland took advantage. Connors and Beirne were doing large shifts, each with a pace of work and aggression – and, in the case of Connors, an eye for the tryline – suggesting they could sneak through the back door into the Warren Gatland Lions roster.May Keenan too. Energetic, smart in a positional sense, brave to attack, his attempt in the first half – thanks to Garry Ringrose’s fine offload – was exactly what Mike Catt, Ireland’s attacking coach, believed Ireland could do. « The most important thing is that the players see the picture first and then make the right decision on the back, » Catt said earlier this week.
There was evidence here that they could do what their coach asked them to do . Does this mean the team has fully recovered its share value? Or was this a case of a dead Catt jump?
We can’t say – because the attempts, the creativity, the offloads were not produced against Scotland or England. The goal against the Italians is something teams are used to.
Because of this, we cannot draw any clear conclusions from yesterday – except for one. If Italy continues to lose in this championship, there really has to be a reason to remove them from the championship, especially now that the South Africans are massing into the Pro14.
Imagine the Springboks – or a Spain-based Argentinian Team – as the sixth nation in this competition. You certainly wouldn’t make up the numbers.
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