Wednesday 23 August 2017

Irish sack Rome with ruthless efficiency

Italy 10 Ireland 63

Garry Ringrose races away from the Italian defence to score one of Ireland’s tries yesterday. Photo: Ramsey Cardy
Garry Ringrose races away from the Italian defence to score one of Ireland’s tries yesterday. Photo: Ramsey Cardy
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

The chances of Ireland, two weeks running, firing a hail of bullets - most of which would miss the target - were limited. Especially against opposition who have only beaten them once in the Six Nations, and even then when the contest had been reduced to an episode of the Keystone Cops, here in 2013, when the away side literally ran out of staff. Different times.

This was a canter, a record romp surpassing by two points the previous biggest points tally against Italy - in summer 2003 - if not quite the biggest margin. It also beat by three points the previous biggest Championship tally - also against Italy, in 2000.

The only concerns for Joe Schmidt will be the bicep injury to Rob Kearney, and a leg injury for the workhorse Robbie Henshaw. Otherwise all went according to plan, not least the debut of Ireland's newest hooker. Schmidt is developing a decent crop there.

Before kick-off yesterday, on a beautifully mild day in Rome, Ireland had another personnel issue with the withdrawal of captain Rory Best with a stomach bug. In the moments before kick-off a colleague wondered how nervous his replacement, debutant Niall Scannell, must have been feeling. Not as bad as he would have had it been Twickenham.

He was part of an Ireland pack that gave Italy a hammering all over the field.

To aid with Scannell's assimilation to the Test programme, the first Irish lineout was called to the front. That was early in the second quarter, by which point the away side were halfway to their target of a bonus-point win. He looked comfy enough, as did his team-mates.

And by then Ireland's plan was plain enough: mix up their carrying game no more than 15 metres either side of the breakdown; do it with aggression and pace; then shift it even quicker to the wide channel when the numbers demanded it. That was what they practised in the warm-up and that's what they delivered in the game.

"Today was an incredibly hard day," Conor O'Shea said afterwards. "We took a battering. The mistakes we made in terms of the set-piece almost invited pressure. And we talked a lot about Ireland's ability to hold the ball through a lot of phases, which is different to Wales. In the first 20 minutes they were outstanding - it took a mental and physical toll on us."

If you were a neutral then this approach was hard to watch, not just from an aesthetic point of view, but from the desire to see a competitive game. The pictures got prettier as Ireland raced away in the second half, frolicking around in all the space, but first came sustained grunt.

The bonus point was sorted by the 35th minute when man of the match CJ Stander got over for his second try. Surely never in the history of rugby union football has there been a man as synonymous with this award than the Munster flanker.

That Ireland rattled it off with Donnacha Ryan in the bin, for his role in conceding a penalty try for a collapsed maul, only emphasised where the outcome was headed. It's unlikely that any of this came as a great surprise to O'Shea. He knew what he took on with the Italy job. It's uphill stuff.

"I'm not going to sit beside Sergio (Parisse) and talk about long-term projects," he said. "I know this group have some great days in them. But we have to learn - we have to get mentally stronger. And we have to change a lot in Italian rugby to get that."

So little had gone right for O'Shea's side to that point it was a battle for them to keep their composure.

Their scrum was under pressure - it recovered well after the break, when Ireland eased off at the set-piece; they couldn't get their hands on any ball at the breakdown; and pretty much their only way forward relied on an Irish mistake.

Conor Murray made one of those, on 16 minutes, with a poor clearance kick from which his pack failed to retreat 10 metres - it's remarkable in the professional game how often forwards are caught out by this - and it allowed Carlo Canna to get his team off the mark.

By then Ireland were already ahead. Two referrals upstairs in the opening 10 minutes gave you pretty clear traffic report, as did a three-minute salvo between the 16th and 18th minutes that saw Keith Earls and Stander get over for their first scores - both of which Paddy Jackson converted.

Given the capricious nature of Johnny Sexton's career, there is increased interest in Jackson's every move. It was worth watching him in the warm-up, for his kicking from hand and off the tee is first-class. Given the dominance of his team from the outset here he got plenty of action off the latter - and finished with a flawless nine conversions of nine tries, equalling Jonny Wilkinson's record.

The Ulster outhalf looked a good deal happier than a week ago. Ireland didn't have to contend with the same line speed in defence because their go-forward was keeping Italy on the back foot.

Keith Earls was a beneficiary in all of this, getting good quality ball in space twice to score as himself and Stander ping-ponged their way to those four first-half tries.

It got worse for Italy after the break. Under orders to keep the boot to the floor Ireland got after them early in the second half with Stander timing perfectly his charge onto the ball leaving the defence again in soak-mode.

The introduction of replacement Craig Gilroy only shuffled the personnel on the score-sheet. He would manage a hat-trick in a record Championship run off the bench, but the score of that second period went to Garry Ringrose. His strike from long range on 72 minutes was immediately reminiscent of Brian O'Driscoll in his destruction of France in Paris in 2000. They may be a different shape, but there is so much else in common, and Ringrose has that ability to get go-forward from the unlikeliest position.

So, with job done, Ireland packed away their bonus point and headed for home. The good news was that they could play fast and accurate rugby when their basics were good enough. The bad news is that the bonus against Italy will be handy pickings for those whose feast is yet to come.

Scorers - Italy: Pen try; C Canna pen, con. Ireland: CJ Stander, C Gilroy three tries each, K Earls two tries, G Ringrose try; P Jackson 9 cons.

Italy: E Padovani; A Esposito, T Benvenuti (M Campagnaro 54), L McLean, G Venditti; C Canna (T Allan 71), E Gori (G Bronzini 62); A Lovotti (S Panico 64), L Ghiraldini (O Gega 48), L Cittadini (D Chistolini 48), M Fuser (G Biagi 48), A van Schalkwyk, M Mbanda, S Parisse (capt), S Favaro

Ireland: R Kearney; K Earls, G Ringrose, R Henshaw (C Gilroy 48), S Zebo (I Keatley 73); P Jackson, C Murray K Marmion 68); C Healy (J McGrath 51), N Scannell (J Tracy 63), T Furlong (J Ryan 54), D Ryan (yc 32-42) D Toner (U Dillane 60), CJ Stander, J Heaslip (capt), S O'Brien (J van der Flier 69)

Referee: G Jackson (NZ)

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