Five things we’ve learned
Ireland get back to winning ways against a dire Italian side that is going backwards
1 The rot has been stopped
Four games without a win, Ireland simply needed to end that run, and the manner in which they did so was certainly pleasing.
It was clear from the early stages that Italy were there for the taking and Ireland ruthlessly exposed their frailties.
With gruelling summer and autumn schedules lying ahead, it was imperative that Ireland got back to winning ways, and the freedom that the players played with leaves plenty of cause for optimism. The nine tries that they scored was a Six Nations record for them but there is a stark realisation that Italy were a rabble.
Jamie Heaslip’s first try was one of the best in Joe Schmidt’s era and it all stemmed from Simon Zebo’s sumptuous off-load. More of the same please.
2 How do you solve a problem like Italy?
While there were plenty of positives to take, it’s difficult to know how much, if anything, Schmidt will have learned from a drubbing against a completely hapless Italian side.
Ireland’s set-piece was flawless, with all eight lineouts finding their targets and as well as three steals; the pack also won their six scrums and took one against the head.
Defensively, Italy were inept which is a reflection of how poor their clubs Zebre and Treviso are.
Both are rooted to the foot of the Pro12 table and continue to offer little to nothing.
The debate on whether or not Italy merit their place in the Six Nations is sure to heat up and although Sergio Parisse scoffed at the notion afterwards, there is no doubt that Italy are going backwards. If it is Conor O’Shea who comes in to try and steady the ship, he has a serious amount of work to do.
3 Zebo’s attacking threat offers fresh dynamic
Zebo was Ireland’s most dangerous attacking threat and he continues to offer more going forward than Rob Kearney does from full-back.
There is no doubting Kearney’s quality and while he might be a better defender than Zebo, the competition for the No 15 jersey must now be as close as it has been for some time.
It remains to be seen if Kearney’s hamstring injury will clear up in time for Scotland but even if it does, there is a case to be made to start Zebo.
Schmidt is unlikely to have been pleased with the way that Zebo shot off the line for Italy’s second try but that minor blot aside, it was an assured performance and one that again showed that Ireland are more dynamic with the Munster player in the side.
4 A proud day for Connacht
To finish with five Connacht players on the pitch was a mark of how far the Pro12 leaders have come.
Robbie Henshaw gave a typically strong performance (72 metres in 15 carries) in midfield, while Ultan Dillane, Kieran Marmion, Nathan White and debutant Finlay Bealham all made their presence felt from the bench.
Dillane again showed why he is a star in the making. The speed at which he takes the ball into contact as well as hits rucks has him primed for regular appearances on the international stage
“To be honest, they’re just Irish players to me. I wasn’t even aware of the fact (that five Connacht players finished the game),” said Schmidt.
It may have gone unnoticed by Schmidt but it certainly won’t have out West as Saturday was a proud day for a province who have been the leading lights of Irish rugby this season.
5 Competition for places heats up ahead of Scots
Schmidt confirmed that Rob Kearney, Eoin Reddan and Cian Healy should all be fit to face Scotland but all three may struggle to force their way back in.
Zebo’s performance certainly warranted another start, while scrum-half Kieran Marmion would definitely benefit from more game time from the bench.
“There are guys who knew today was an opportunity, who wanted to say: ‘Look, I’m going to work really hard for this jersey’,” Schmidt said.
The hope is that Schmidt will continue to build for the future with his selection against Scotland.