Heaslip shines, Ireland's blistering start and scrum domination - Five talking points from Ireland's record win
Here are five talking points after Ireland's record Six Nations win against Italy in Rome.
IRELAND STRIKE EARLY THIS WEEK AS BONUS POINT PUTS TITLE HOPES BACK ON TRACK
Ireland needed to erase the memories of their slow start in Murrayfield last week which left them with too much to do when they eventually launched their second-half comeback.
They didn’t give the Italian suckers an even break - dominating the encounter from the first whistle and wrapped up the first ever try-scoring bonus point in Six Nations history by the 34th minute thanks to two Munster-based doubles from Keith Earls and CJ Stander.
Given the appalling standard of this Italian side, others will do the same so the five points was an absolute requirement and six points from the two opening games at least gives Ireland a more than realistic fighting chance when the championship resumes against France in a fortnight before crunch games against Wales and England.
HEASLIP’S CAPTAINCY SETS THE TONE FOR BRISK START
There were no issues with Ireland struggling to get out of first gear this week - they encountered barely any traffic with a ridiculously one-way opening half which set the platform for the handsome win.
Jamie Heaslip’s captaincy helped set the perfect tone of hungry ambition which matches the enthusiasm of his players.
Ireland had twice as much possession and three times as much territory as the opposition - but crucially they made it pay by earning a reward for their dominance.
They were utterly dominant going forward, making six line breaks to Italy's 0, 244 metres made to Italy's 67 and 13 defenders beaten to Italy's one.
On three occasions, so supremely confident was Heaslip in Ireland’s forward and set-piece dominance, he turned down kicks at goal and it would have pleased the thousands of Irish here to see his ambition duly rewarded.
Rory Best’s late withdrawal was a distraction but it hardly affected Ireland.
In a three-year captaincy stint between 2012 and 2015, Heaslip led his side 12 times and was victorious six times, drawing once and losing five, including a four-match winless streak during the calamitous 2013 RBS 6 Nations championship.
Before today, his winning percentage as captain was 54.16%; admittedly better than his overall win ratio which stood at 53.6%.
He will rarely have an easier day at the coal-face; losing the toss was his only, unlucky, false step.
BEST MAN FOR BEST JOB
After spending a week bemoaning the slow coach which compounded their slow start in Murrayfield, Joe Schmidt had blamed the players’ mentality and demanded that they deal with distractions much better in the future.
The captain’s runs before the captain’s run may have discommoded a side with any potential for mental fragility but his direct replacement, Munster man Niall Scannell, encouragingly betrayed any signs of nerves with a sparkling performance.
Winning an early scrum against the head set the tone for a magnificent personal display, while the lineout calls from Devin Toner early on were precise and uncomplicated and helped to ease him into a contest he was soon relishing.
But Scannell was involved in every facet, holding up Sergio Parrisse in a tackle one minute, driving powerfully from the back of a lineout maul before Stander’s fourth try the next.
His wonderful turnover on half-way and gallop set up the field position for the first try scored by Stander in the left corner.
ITALIAN JOB A HUGE TASK FOR CONOR O’SHEA
Rome wasn’t built in a day; nor will its rugby team.
If Conor O’Shea didn’t anticipate the mammoth task that awaits him in attempting to revive the fortunes of this proud rugby nation, then he is fully appreciative of the difficulties that await him now.
Aside from the calamitous defeat here in Declan Kidney’s final season in charge, Ireland’s record against the Azzurri is unblemished since Five Nations became Six in 2000 and this was a notable exception to what are often dour struggles in February.
Perhaps the almost summer-like weather conditions had something to do with Ireland’s vivacious mood.
Ireland’s winning margin over the course of ten Six Nations meetings in February is 17 points, however in March, that average winning margin rises to 30.
Italy’s only win in their last 17 championship games was against Scotland in 2015. The road ahead gets even steeper for O’Shea.
SCRUM DOMINANCE A HEARTENING SIGN WITH BIG GUNS TO COME
Even when Italy couldn’t string a pass together, and that was quite a lot, during their Six Nations lifetime, they were always able to hold their own with a dominant scrum led by old favourites like Lo Cicero and Castrogiovanni.
Lo Cicero was squirming in his seat in front of us here as Ireland won a penalty against the head in the game’s opening scrum and wilfully deployed the set-piece as a virulent attacking weapon thereafter.
One of the high points of Murrayfield, too, was the Irish scrum, which won every ball and had the Scots on a yellow card warning by early in the second-half - luckily for them there were no scrums after the 46th minute.
Italy found some purchase when the front-rows were re-arranged but with the match result a beaten docket at that stage, the initial set-pieces are much more revelatory.
Cian Healy was prominent on a long-awaited championship start as he targets a Lions berth and with tougher scrum tests to come, this particular set-piece prowess bodes well in what will be much tighter games to come against France, Wales and England.