A comprehensive victory? Yes. A stand-out performance? Not so much. But here are five positives we can take from Ireland vs Italy.
As the cold weary sun sets on the first month of 2015, we hurtle towards Spring. The whistle of wind throughout a cold February morning, the sun taking a bite through weary clouds, the air is alive with the buzz of not only the new season – but of the 2015 RBS Six Nations.
This weekend saw the kick-off of the highly anticipated tournament, and Ireland opened their title defence with a lacklustre win against Sergio Parisse’s Italy. Not the prettiest of performances, there’s still a number of reasons to be encouraged by Ireland’s victory in Rome.
1. A win is a win
It may seem like a cliché at this point, but a win is a win. A 23 point win at that, I’d take that margin with open arms on the return flight from Rome any day of the week.
It’s quite difficult to fly to Italy and put in a good performance alongside a comprehensive victory. For all their woes and inconsistencies, the Italians have become a thorn in the side of many in Rome during the 6 Nations. A strong front row and an imposing physicality – the mindset of Italy being an easy win is over and gone. Whilst they don’t always travel well, they certainly put in a shift at home.
It’s a banana skin of a fixture, but one that Ireland managed to avoid.
The best teams in the world are built on the same formula – doing the basics better than anyone else. In a world where lineouts and scrums are aplenty, these are crucial areas in gaining a foothold and a momentum in the game. Luckily for Joe Schmidt’s side, Ireland were the dominant side in these areas Saturday.
The Irish lineout was strong, disrupting Ghiraldini and co. on their own throw whilst maintaining a comfortable success rate themselves. On Ireland’s throw the pack responded emphatically, with their maul being an extremely powerful tool against the Azzurri pack.
With Jack McGrath and Mike Ross at the helm, the Irish scrum held true. The conditions were poor and didn’t do either pack any favours, but the Irish remained on referee Pascal Gaüzère’s favourable side. The Italians can be a strong unit come scrum time, yet McGrath and Ross were able to contain Aguero and Castrogiovanni throughout the afternoon.
For all Ireland’s achievements over the last year, it’s important to remember that life goes on for these players outside the Irish set up and it hasn’t exactly been a textbook season for any of the Irish provinces. Leinster, Munster and Ulster have all struggled for form during their domestic and European campaigns, so for them to hit the ground running together would have been a tough task.
We got a stuttering start, but we also saw Ireland grow into the game and look more comfortable as the game went on. Knock ons and other unforced errors will be a disappointment, but there’s an element of a blowout about it, wiping away the dust and the cobwebs.
Out of the Irish 15 that started that memorable victory against France in Paris, only 7 remained. It’s been a long year since that clash, with injuries and form wreaking havoc across the provincial setup. So while it was a lacklustre performance, it was a win, and hopefully the early jog before the full stride.
It was an ugly win yes, but it was still a 23 point win against Italy. Ian Keatley started at out-half, Tommy O’Donnell stepped in late for the unlucky Sean O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip missed the game – Ireland were missing three of their most influential players yesterday. They were also missing Cian Healy, and Andrew Trimble amongst others – big name absentees.
Conor Murray stepped up in the leadership department to fill any void as did Peter O’Mahony and Devin Toner. Keatley found his feet throughout the game, Tommy O’Donnell was excellent and Iain Henderson made an impact late on. Ireland are finding a strength in depth now that is critical to any potential World Cup success.
5. Backline clicking
Ireland’s will rue their poor handling which left opportunities aplenty on the field. The backs struggled to convert any chances they had despite the solid platform given to them by their pack, and while the Italian defence was excellent, Ireland will be disappointed they didn’t ask more questions of the Azzurri in the last quarter of the game.
Italy grew weary in defence through the second half and Ireland didn’t exploit this enough. There was a buzz amongst the backs and Ireland looked dangerous in the wider channels, but it came to nothing ultimately. Despite this failure, there are encouraging signs there.
Payne and Henshaw looked good on their second outing, and there’s a spark of energy and freshness across the backline waiting to be brought out. Putting more width on the ball and attacking wider channels can bring Bowe, Zebo and Kearney into the game more – an impressive attacking trio. It didn’t all go into plan in Rome, but it looks like it could all click together sooner rather than later.
While there are positives, it is still important to note that Italy are the weakest side in the 6 Nations this year, and Ireland will need to be more clinical and comfortable if they are to contain France in the Aviva Stadium next weekend. A tough week of training for Joe Schmidt’s side, next week will test their maturity and mettle.