Ireland still have a slim chance of reclaiming their Guinness Six Nations crown thanks to their bonus point 16-26 victory over Italy at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome this afternoon.
However, what will be most concerning for Irish supporters will be the performance of the team who look a shadow of the side who brilliantly defeated the All Blacks just over three months ago.
After the latest performance from the men in green, we take a look at 10 conclusions from the four-try victory.
1) Ireland were disrupted just 12 minutes into this game when Bundee Aki was removed for a HIA and he was replaced by Andrew Conway. Chris Farrell had to move to 12 and Keith Earls came in off his wing to move to 13 leaving Conway to take up Earls’ original right wing spot. Both Farrell and Earls were out of position as they formed Ireland’s midfield for the remainder of the game which didn’t help their attacking cohesion.
2) Unforced errors in open play. Ireland’s attacking game was characterised by poor passing and handling. So often, Ireland knocked the ball on due to a lack of concentration or bad execution of a pass. It constantly led to Ireland’s attacks breaking down.
3) Lineout struggles once again. Ireland had a poor time at the lineout which proved further detrimental considering Joe Schmidt’s side tend to rely on pre-designed moves from this set piece. On two occasions in the first half, Sean Cronin overshot his throw but blame must also be attributed to the pack as a whole as the timing of the lifters and jumpers was also off.
4) Ireland’s discipline is usually excellent but they conceded nine in total across the 80 minutes and five in the first half as Italy took advantage.
5) Conor Murray is still feeling the effects of the neck injury which ruled him out of the first part of the season. Since his return, he seems a bit off the pace and his box-kicking and passing aren’t as accurate. He was overshadowed by his opposite number Tito Tebaldi who was excellent.
6) Although Italy have to go back to Round 3 of the 2015 championship for their last Six Nations victory, this was a very good Italian performance. They are not getting the results they so desperately crave but the margin of their defeats in this championship hasn’t been by much; Scotland (13), Wales (11) and Ireland (10) suggests they aren’t too far away from getting that elusive win.
7) Ireland are missing a lot of players. Through resting or injury, Schmidt was without a lot of his front-line players for this afternoon’s clash. One would imagine that if Cian Healy, Rory Best, James Ryan, Devin Toner, CJ Stander, Garry Ringrose and Robbie Henshaw were available for this match, Ireland would have produced a much more consistent performance.
8) Some players took their chance, others didn’t. Sean Cronin made his first Six Nations start and he will be unhappy with how Ireland’s lineout performed while he was on the pitch. Others such as Ultan Dillane, Dave Kilcoyne and Jordi Murphy put in solid shifts but it may not be enough for them to keep their spot when France come to Dublin in two weeks.
9) Fast start. One of the positives for Ireland is that they produced a fast start, as they did in Scotland two weeks ago, as they scored two tries in the opening 20 minutes against Italy. It’s clear that has been a focus since England stormed out of the blocks at the Aviva Stadium in the opening round so at least Ireland are getting this right. The challenge will be to maintain that momentum further into each game.
10) More minutes under the belt. Ireland will be glad that their halfback partnership of Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton received more minutes together on the pitch. Sexton has played very little rugby since the turn of the year while Murray is still finding his way after his comeback from a neck injury. The time spent together has been shorter still but today’s match in Rome should provide for more cohesion against France in two weeks.