February 13, 2015
It is important that we set some perspective before making judgements on the game. For starters Ireland were missing at least 3 forwards who would have started in a full strength side in Healy, O'Brien and Heaslip. The loss of other players like Dan Tuohy and Chris Henry weakened somewhat a forward unit that was going to have to front up against a very physical Italian unit. Given that the back row saw two young and inexperienced players go up against Zanni, Minto and Parrise it was clear before kick-off that they would be under real pressure. In the backs Ireland were missing Sexton, with Keatley starting his first ever 6 Nations game. In fact it was only his second cap in the last 5 years with the other being at 12 for less than 20 minutes against Georgia, For such a crucial position on the field this cannot be forgotten. In the midfield the Henshaw-Payne partnership is still very much in its infancy and consists of a 13 playing 12 and a 15 playing 13. Though there is definitely promise in this combination, issues should be expected at this early stage. In fact of the 7 backs that featured through-out last years 6 Nations only 2 were playing on Saturday (Murray and Kearney).
It is also very important to recognise that in the opening rounds of the 6 Nations Italy in Rome are no pushovers, and haven't been in some time. In fact the last time a side beat them by more than 20 in the first 2 rounds in Italy was Ireland back in 2009 when we beat them by 29 points. Prior to that France did it in 2007, the year they pipped us at the posts on points difference. In the last 10 years this is only the third time they've been on the end of a 20+ point beating at home in the opening rounds. That a weakened Irish side in greasy conditions were able to do this then there is surely cause for optimism about the match?
So how did Ireland go about getting the result? It seemed fairly obvious to us that the first 50-60 were all about wearing the Italians down. Force them into making tackle after tackle so that in the last quarter the holes would start to appear. As a result we saw Ireland going back into traffic on occasions when we might have expected them to look for space. Italy made a total of 198 tackles over the 80 minutes and did appear to tire around the 50 minute mark (having made over 130 tackles at that point). Their openside Minto, who left the field after 69 minutes, topped the tackle stats with a whopping 24 tackles (amazingly missing none). On average the Italian forwards made 17 tackles each. That is one hell of an amount of work to get through and eventually it was going to tell. Combined with Ireland's line-out maul which was hugely effective Ireland simply wore the Italians down. In the end they conceded the yellow card (although for my money that should have gone to Castro rather than Ghiraldini) and Ireland were always going to make the most of that opportunity.
Throughout the game Ireland again relied on the boot quite a lot, 28 times to be exact. The kick chase though was top notch and ensured that Ireland dictated a lot of the territorial battle. Henshaw, Zebo and Bowe in particular chased hard and kept the pressure on Italy. We varied our line-out a good deal by throwing to Toner, O'Connell, O'Mahony, O'Donnell and Murphy. From here we made good use of the line-out maul, either as a weapon in itself or as a decoy. We saw the latter in the build up to the Murray try where Murphy took the ball from O'Connell at pace coming around the back of the line-out. Our scrum was solid until the last 10 minutes or so and it should be noted how solid Mike Ross was despite some serious attempts by Aguero to get in under him or drag him down.
With ball in hand was where Ireland were most disjointed. We found it hard to break the Italian defence down and were very sloppy at times. However there were positives here too. The number of players who stepped in at first receiver throughout the game was impressive. Other than Keatley we saw Henshaw, Bowe and Zebo there quite a lot. There was a real element of total rugby about the back line with players not simply hanging about in their own channel waiting for the game to come to them. At one point we saw Payne in the wide channel making a break after receiving a lovely flat ball from Zebo who was standing at first receiver for example. And we also saw Ireland trying some more intricate moves in the middle of the park than we had been seeing in November. We looked to mix that with guys coming onto the ball from depth at pace then too. While not all of the moves panned out they were still good signs of developments in Ireland's game.
While it was disappointing that Ireland couldn't get at least one more try it has to be remembered that the rain started to come down making conditions very difficult and Ireland made a host of changes that disrupted their continuity. It should also be stressed that the introduction of Tommaso Allan made a massive impact to the Italian game and I find it incredible that he isn't starting tomorrow in Twickenham.
It wasn't a perfect performance by any means, but it was an impressive result nonetheless. There were some impressive performances from O'Donnell, Murphy, Henshaw and Zebo. Payne had some really nice touches and there was definitely more to Ireland's game. Ian Keatley had a bit of a mixed bag of a game, but given his inexperience at this level he did well and grew into the game as it went on. The big worry is that other sides will likely put a score on the Italians meaning that Ireland will not be able to rely on points difference to win the Championship this year. We'll just have to do it the hard way and win the Grand Slam instead. And with France in town tomorrow and a number of returning players we should have a good sense tomorrow evening where we stand in that regard.