Guinness Six Nations: Italy vs. Ireland Reflections

Bonus Point win secured but questions raised for Ireland

At the start of the day, the objective was clear for Ireland. A bonus point try win was the minimum requirement on a perfect February afternoon in Rome. The mission was accomplished but not before a nervy examination from an Italian side who were abrasive and impressive with ball in hand when given the opportunity. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action.

Now is not the time to panic

The mass hysteria from the Irish Twitter feeds during this game was surreal. You thought that Ireland had lost this test match quite heavily such was the commentary on the performance. The players and management will be the first to acknowledge that elements of the performance were patchy but after going in at half time 16-12 down, they won the second half 0-14.

It feels like damned if you do, damned if you don’t. If Ireland had trounced Italy today, it still would not be good enough for some. A second successive win and Ireland are within striking distance of both Wales and England. After the England loss, this is as good as it can be for Ireland at this juncture of the tournament.

It is time for the Irish sporting public to take a deep breathe, relax and give the management and players the time, the support, the space to regroup to address the issues exposed today and move on with confidence for the French fixture in two weeks time.

The Good

We have to start with the good news. The Ireland attacking threat of Jacob Stockdale and Keith Earls lit up this contest from an Ireland perspective. Both players when give sufficient ball impressed. Stockdale for me was our biggest threat of the afternoon and anytime he got the ball, gain line yards were made with ease. Keith Earls nous and ability to create something from nothing was seen to full effect in that second half; sublime line breaks and then his try was about pure opportunism.

The ability to dust themselves down at half-time when down 16-12 was admirable given the circumstances. The team were caught rotten on the
Morisi try, looking to play expansive and a breakdown in the move led to the kick downfield. This was an afternoon where nothing seemed to stick for Ireland; the more harder they tried, the more unforced errors came. It was a frustrating afternoon but to come away with a bonus point try win given the scenario at half-time was pleasing.

Italy”s attacking play was negated somewhat in that second half. Tebaldi’s influence on proceedings waned on fifty minutes and Ireland took control of the aerial battle. Tebaldi had a good afternoon up until that point as he played off the cuff, something that I have not seen him do. Italy were expressive with ball in hand, this is what they should be looking to do from now on.

Unforced errors capped off the Irish performance but at least Ireland were creating genuine try scoring opportunities. Earls and Stockdale line breaks in the second half on another day could have seen tries scored.

Aki injury affected rhythm and tempo

The opening quarter was decent from Ireland. Yes, there were a couple of early knock on incidents but Ireland with Bundee Aki and Chris Farrell looked dangerous when given quick ruck ball to work with. The two players were central to the Quinn Roux try.

Whether it was related to the withdrawal of Bundee Aki but Ireland’s threat in the three quarters for the second quarter was minimal and contained. Italy’s defensive line speed easily preempting Ireland’s attacking moves as Ireland ball carriers more often than not received the ball in a static position. Ireland were not probing the outside channels nor where they creating territorial platform with any type of kick game from open play.

Frustrating day for the Ireland half backs

Sexton at ten set the tone with his usual playing on the gain line but the tempo and cohesion around him was not there this afternoon. As a result, Sexton was more often than not getting a late Italian hit such was the delay in ball carriers getting into the position that Sexton required of them. It was a frustrating afternoon.

Murray will have mixed feelings on the afternoon. Ireland’s presentation of ball at ruck time has been poor so far in this tournament and it continued today. The new pack personnel perhaps not cohesive enough but Murray needed to get a stray Ireland forward leg out of the way more often than not to get the ball away; precious few seconds wasted and allowed Italy to defensively setup.

The scrum-half did score the crucial bonus point try for Ireland; crashing over when Ireland’s maul delivered. Murray will wonder on some of the protection issues that were clearly apparent today. The sight of an Italian forward coming in straight through the gate unchecked ripping the ball from Murray will not be an image or sequence that the Irish players or management will want to see.

Breakdown Imbalance

The breakdown area saw O’Mahony have several marquee moments but Italy had their own moments in that second and third quarter. The breakdown nous of a Leavy or van der Flier was missed. O’Brien tried hard without success. Murphy was ineffectual. Leavy, van der Flier will have duly noted the back row imbalance today.

Squad players get chance with mixed results

The key element from this test match from my perspective was how the squad players who were given sufficient game time to impress today fared. It is fair to say that it was a very mixed bag with some perhaps missing their big opportunity to secure a place for the Ireland RWC 2019 squad.

Dave Kilcoyne put in a combative, abrasive performance in the front row. His scrummaging winning Ireland early attacking platform. His ball carrying and tackling were on point; it was a satisfactory performance from the UL Bohs player and should see more action before the end of the tournament.

Sean Cronin started his first Six Nations test match today and it was a trying day on a number of fronts. The line out malfunctioned; the misfires were not all down to the hooker but there were a couple of overthrows in that second quarter which coughed up easy field position. Cronin was also caught offside in his eagerness to get off the line.

The fact that Cronin was whipped off after forty-seven minutes was a statement that Cronin was the fall guy for the set piece issues; harsh. Niall Scannell came on; the line out was still inconsistent and a high tackle yielded an Italian penalty. Rory Best and Rob Herring will have watched the proceedings with interest. Best will come back in for the France game. Herring may be given game time given the difficulties at hooker today. Hooker depth chart and the backup slot is up for grabs.

Dillane and Roux had mixed afternoons. Roux started the game well and his try was well executed; his drive to the line emphatic. The line out that went so well against Scotland was exposed at regular intervals today as Dean Budd in particular proving an absolute hindrance for Ireland to execute the line out with any confidence of efficiency. Dillane was all action; had key moments in his tackling and ball carries but there were also some unforced errors (not the only one to commit this). Dillane continued to pick himself up and it showed his spirit and resiliency to keep going until the end.

James Ryan is guaranteed to start against France and whether Iain Henderson features looks to be an intriguing question right now. Henderson was all action in his cameo appearance and whether Quinn Roux will be given another opportunity will rest on who was at fault for the line out misfires during video analysis this week at Carton House.

Jordi Murphy and the number eight experiment will surely be consigned to the filing cabinet where Robbie Henshaw and the full back experiment was consigned a couple of weeks ago. Minimal impact with ball in hand, no significant go forward ball for Ireland to capitalize on as Murray continued to use other runners at regular intervals. Jordi Murphy has flexibility to fill the other back row positions but the eight channel option is questionable after today. Jordi Murphy missed a big chance today to impress.

Andrew Conway came in unexpectedly early due to the HIA withdrawal of Bundee Aki. Conway was sharp with ball in hand, was put under pressure defensively once or twice due to Tebaldi’s game management to switch play out wide at regular intervals during that second and third quarter. Conway was not given ample quick ball to truly impress but it was a solid outing and one that management will have duly noted.

The other substitutes that came on did their jobs sufficiently well in the short amount of allocated time given. John Cooney looked sharp with his passing and kick game to close out the contest. Jack Carty’s cameo saw a couple of decent plays hitting runners with good speed. The forward bench options all contributed to the win late on.

A win for Ireland in Rome. Italy contributed to the test match with a good display but Ireland know that there is work to be done on the training paddock in the next week to get to the level required to compete and beat France.