Ireland cast off the shackles to run sorry Azzurri ragged
Ireland 58 Italy 15
With time almost up in the first half at the Aviva yesterday Ireland reclaimed their own 22 drop-out through Donnacha Ryan, and set about securing the ball at the ruck. Leading 20-3 at that point, and with Italy having lost two forwards - including go-to lineout target George Biagi - already it was impossible to see the away team getting back into it. Whereupon Ireland put the issue beyond doubt.
Rather than exit, as is the norm from that point on the map, they put the ball through nine passes before Jamie Heaslip finished at the far end in a move you'll be seeing a lot more of, as evidence that sometimes the Six Nations produces sumptuous rugby, and occasionally its currently most maligned team can be at the heart of it.
The interesting bit was the circumstances in which Ireland opened up. We counted at least four opportunities in the 40 minutes to that point where men in green might have offloaded, but chose to play safe. Their stat of nine - massive for Ireland - was run up later in the day. Rather they might have been following the standard line when playing Italy, that you have to go toe to toe with them for an age before challenging them to a foot race with ball in hand. Or else it's just not something they do without over-thinking it.
This was the subtext to a Test played in beautiful conditions on a spring day that felt closer to summer, between teams for whom a title challenge was either long gone or never an option in the first place. A fortnight ago in Twickenham Ireland played more rugby than we've been accustomed to, and were let down a few times by hard calls or their own naivety. Here we expected them to have another go, with more success.
Sure enough they did, and the reward was nine tries, a Six Nations record for them, but falling short of the 60-13 result against the same opposition in 2000.
Depending on where you stand either this was all academic because it was against Italy, who traditionally at this stage of the campaign, away from home, have about them a touch of the wildebeest stranded on the Serengeti. Or else you'll be glad that the effort to play rugby, delayed as long as it was, had a happy ending.
If you were viewing this from the blue corner you'll have been worn out by the predictability of it all. When Jared Payne intercepted Edoardo Padavani's pass, a couple of minutes into the second half, to make it 32-3, you felt for Jacques Brunel. It's never good for a coach to be looking at his watch so early in a game. It remains to be seen if his likely successor, Conor O'Shea, whose appointment is expected to be announced in the next fortnight, will have a different experience. Aside from tries in the third and fourth quarters, long after the issue was decided, the only time Brunel's heartbeat might have quickened in a good way was in the first few minutes when a decent attack ended with Gonzalo Garcia being bundled into touch just short of the line.
They weren't horsed out of it at the set-piece but three lost lineouts hurt them, although not as badly as a whopping 15 turnovers conceded. Ireland were faultless at the scrum and out of touch. And their vastly superior possession stats forced Italy into a painful 200-plus attempted tackles. You can't compete in those circumstances.
Neither does it help when you concede a try on seven minutes by palming the ball back to nowhere - as Leonardo Sarto did, 22 metres from his own line. It finished with a touchdown for Andrew Trimble, who had a good game.
The man of the match award went to Donnacha Ryan, which was fair enough. Moreover it was a great result for a player who a year ago feared his career was over. Robbie Henshaw must have been a close second in that contest, and Jack McGrath, as ever, reaffirmed what an outstanding rugby player he is. It was the loosehead who burrowed his way over from close range on 15 minutes after a referral to the TMO, and even then, at 12-0, it was hard to see how Italy could dodge the hail of bullets that would be coming their way.
Still, Ireland were cautious enough about when and where to fire them. They would have been even further ahead by the time they opened up but for Johnny Sexton struggling off the tee. He took a big, and late, dunt from the brilliant Sergio Parisse, which seemed to rattle him for a while. Aside from his goal-kicking he managed everything else well and appeared to enjoy having so much ball to play with.
On the half hour CJ Stander, who can be well pleased with his first season in green, finished off a move that started with a beautifully executed powerplay off a lineout. Clearly Josh van der Flier is still in the team only because of Sean O'Brien's absence, but he complements Stander perfectly. He too should be delighted with how his season has panned out - a development which looked fanciful as recently as the autumn.
The second half ran along predictable lines, with Joe Schmidt waiting until the 50th minute before starting his bench clearance. Of that crew Sean Cronin did most damage, while Nathan White and Ultan Dillane showed some nice touches. Mission accomplished then for the home team - the only issue being its value against such poor opposition. Let's see what the Scots bring here on Saturday.
Scorers - Ireland: Heaslip 2 tries; Madigan try, 2 cons; Trimble, McGrath, Stander, Payne, Cronin, McFadden try each; Sexton pen, 3 cons; Italy: Odiete, Sarto try each; Padovani pen; Haimona con.
Ireland: S Zebo; A Trimble (F McFadden temp 21-28), J Payne (F McFadden perm 72), R Henshaw (F McFadden temp 37-40;), K Earls; J Sexton (I Madigan 50), C Murray (K Marmion 60); J McGrath (F Bealham 66), R Best (capt)(S Cronin 50), M Ross (N White 55), D Ryan, D Toner (U Dillane 55), CJ Stander (R Ruddock 62), J Heaslip, J van der Flier
Italy: D Odiete; L Sarto, M Campagnaro, G Garcia (K Haimona 55), M Bellini; E Padovani, G Pallazzani (A Lucchese 63); A Lovotti (M Zanusso 72), D Giazzon (O Fabiani 55), P Ceccarelli, G Biagi (A Steyn 36), M Fuser (Q Geldenhuys 27), F Minto, S Parisse (capt), A Zanni
Referee: A Gardner (Australia)
Sunday Indo Sport