RBS 6 Nations: Ireland 58 – 15 Italy

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The scoreline speaks volumes. Ireland’s ultra conservative team selection will be seen as justified following this easy victory against an Italian side whose were flat out second best for the entire contest.

Ireland’s first win in the RBS 6 Nations campaign was built on a solid pack performance which allowed the half-back pairing of Murray and Sexton the time and space to launch their inside runners initially to keep the Italians honest defensively before launching the outside backs when the Italian tackle count was high.

The start of the contest saw Italy start on the front foot, asserting early dominance and territorial advantage. However, their ball retention in the red zone was lacking and when Ireland won back the ball and cleared their lines, the result was never in doubt.

Ireland have being much maligned for their lack of creative expansive rugby style so far in the championship but the team made a conscious decision to attack Italy in every part of the pitch. Murray’s speed of pass from the ruck was on point and allowed Sexton to probe the Italian defense with passes to colleague making late running lines.

The use of drubber kick into space was the platform for the first Ireland try. Sarto panicked dealing with the ball in behind palming the ball into space with Odiete not on the same wavelength.

Payne’s anticipation saw the Ulster player latch onto the ball and after a ten meter gain saw the ball eventually end up with Trimble going over in the corner. An early try on the score for the hosts and you could sense the Italians were dropping heads immediately after the concession. Sexton missed the conversion but today was not a day when the fly-half was required for his kicking off the tee.

Italy struggled as a pack unit. Their line-out as predicted in this blog this week struggled with the absence of Ghiraldini as hooker. Toner and Ryan in the pack were enjoying their afternoon stealing Italian set piece sometimes at will. Italy’s problems were further compounded by the fact that they were losing the breakdown battle as Ireland’s back row were flat out dominant in all facets of play.

The emergence of Leinster youngster van der Flier has being a big positive for Ireland and Joe Schmidt this season. His all action style, tackle count, work rate and ability to slow opponent ball were in full view today. The player has a bright future in the national and provincial jersey after this cameo and was unlucky not to receive the man of the match accolade.

With Italy’s tackle count flirting around the eighty mark on thirty minutes, it was inevitable that Ireland would score additional tries before the interval and so it proved. The marauding CJ Stander with ball in hand setting up Jack McGrath to drive ball over close range. Stander’s involvement in the second try was noteworthy, it took three Italian pack players to take the Munster player down and the space created by the drive resulted in McGrath having an easy task to cross over.

Padovani did put Italy on the scoreboard with an easy penalty on twenty-three minutes after a period of pressure in the Ireland half but normal service was resumed soon after as Sexton picked himself up from a Parisse late hit to slot between the posts to make it 15-3. The rest of the half was sheer dominance from the hosts.

The third try was scored by CJ Stander, a fitting reward for a player who has transitioned into the international game seamlessly. Stander was never going to be stopped after Ireland decided to go for a line-out from an Italy indiscretion for not rolling away. Stander’s leg power was too much for the Italian ruck defense and the roar of the crowd spoke volumes of how the home faithful have taken to the South African.

Italy were now like a boxer who was taking too many punches and not throwing anything back. Ireland sensed that the game could be killed off and so it proved with a stunning fourth try just before the interval. A superb team score with the offload of Zebo on the sideline to Payne a standout play. Payne’s pass into space was also superbly executed and it opened up the field for McFadden to gallop into open space which resulted in Jamie Heaslip’s going in for the try.

Sexton missed the resultant conversion but the half-time score was an accurate indication of the game. Ireland in full control and Italy struggling to create any cohesion in play. The new debutantes at half-back were having a miserable afternoon as their pack were constantly on the back foot. Brunel’s team selection in these positions will no doubt be reviewed for next week’s daunting trip to Cardiff.

25-3 on the resumption of the second half and quite a few supporters were still enjoying their half-time refreshments when Jared Payne again showed great game reading to intercept an Italian pass deep in Azzuri territory to score under the posts. If anyone had any doubt of the outcome, it was firmly put to bed then.

Let us be honest, the rest of the game was played in a training session tempo. Ireland scored at will and Heaslip grabbed his second try of the game with more good work from the Ireland pack setting the platform. Sean Cronin winning his fifty cap for his country then got on the act with a try from close range. Cronin’s cameo was full of running during his appearance, the open game suited the player and his game line yard statistics today were exemplary.

Odiete and Sarto did cross for Italy in the last quarter but given the number of changes in the Ireland side, they were mere consolation scores. Ireland were not finished in the try scoring stakes and further tries from Madigan and McFadden nullified those Italian tries. Ireland were still on the front foot in the final phrase of play on the Italian try line but Italy did enough to stop the attack and so blew the final whistle.

Ireland will realize that this game will be forgotten about quickly. Yes, it was nice to see expansive side of the team come out in force with several eye catching tries but the opposition lacked the cohesion defensively or in attack to seriously challenge Ireland today. All Ireland players on duty played well.

Donnacha Ryan and Devin Toner responded to the challenge of Ultan Dillane with an excellent partnership outing. Their lineout performance was excellent and their ability to disrupt Italy on their set piece early doors was a key momentum changer in the outcome of the contest.

Where do Italy go from here? They were comprehensively beaten in all facets of play. Parisse looked a forlorn figure in large periods of this contest as his colleagues struggled to get to the tempo and physicality of the game. Sarto’s role in the opening Ireland try summed up the team’s performance, poor decision making and no accountability to deal with the Ireland play.

Wales will beat this team by more than forty points next weekend. The half-back partnership were wholly exposed, their inexperience at international level was lapped up by Murray and Sexton who then launched their runners with relative ease. Italy are destined for the wooden spoon again and questions will be raised on how competitive the Azzuri are for this championship?

Italy provide great fanfare, great stadium in Rome but the product on the pitch is regressing at a rate which must be alarming to the organizers of this tournament. Do the tournament organizers need to introduce a promotion / relegation playoff for the wooden spoon winner against the winner of the second tier European tournament?

Georgia deserve a chance to play in this tournament and this format would provide them with this opportunity. Italy need to raise their performance, their professional club rugby scene is abject and while this continues, the national team will suffer. An arresting slide in performance and on the basis of this performance, it is a long road back for Italy. Georgia are waiting patiently for their opportunity. RBS 6 Nation organizers need to take action now.