Sunday 25 February 2018

Bernard Jackman: Aggression, quick ball and the right tactics - job done for now

Italy didn't stand a chance as fired-up Ireland laid ghosts of Murrayfield loss to rest

Ireland’s CJ Stander scores a try during a fine display Photo: Reuters
Ireland’s CJ Stander scores a try during a fine display Photo: Reuters

Bernard Jackman

With all the talk of "bus gate" post Edinburgh and the fact that we metaphorically didn't get off the bus in the first half, it was inevitable that Ireland would explode out of the blocks in Rome. Italy, in truth, didn't stand a chance.

After 21 minutes we had a possession dominance of 89 per cent compared to their 11 per cent. We were controlling everything and the scoreboard reflected that. As soon as the floodgates opened there was no way back for Italy, their only option was to try and ride out the storm.

Ireland kept the ball in hand; they played much flatter on the gain-line with little deception. Four out of every five passes came from Conor Murray to a big ball carrier like Sean O'Brien, CJ Stander or Cian Healy, who were all flat out pummelling the Italian defence on the gain-line.

Our support players were ultra aggressive, they cleaned out the Italian defenders and created lightning quick ball. Unlike last week it all went according to plan. The attitude was right and the tactics too. When we used Paddy Jackson he had Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose running hard lines off his shoulder. We were incredibly patient, only going wide when we had overlaps, which led to Keith Earls and Stander dotting down in the corners. Joe Schmidt couldn't have asked for anything more in the first half.

But he will ask for more as that's his nature. So he will undoubtedly be questioning the penalty try that was conceded and the yellow card awarded against Donnacha Ryan for collapsing a maul that was flying towards the Irish try line. Not even the subsequent try from Stander that secured the first four-try Six Nations bonus point will make Schmidt forget about the small errors.

After a week of scrutiny Ireland were emotionally on edge. Their attitude and mental strength had been questioned, they needed to be solid, but at the same time show some flair. The type of game plan Schmidt planned and executed in the first half was ideal. They played low-risk, in-your-face, abrasive rugby and it worked a treat. They had a pack full of ball carriers but one was king of them all - CJ Stander. The statistics speak for themselves; he had 15 carries for 36 metres gained, while the Italian pack had 20 carries for 40 metres gained, in the first 40 minutes alone.

The Munster player was immense and his hat-trick of tries was the first by an Irish man in the Six Nations since Brian O'Driscoll's historic three scores in Paris in 2002.

Traditionally, Italy are competitive early in the tournament and at home. But they have started with two heavy losses at home to Wales and Ireland. Conor O'Shea is a very astute rugby man and he is aware that there will be tough days before they become a competitive outfit. It's a long-term project.

He has surrounded himself with coaches that he trusts with Mike Catt and Brendan Venter in his backroom team. I have no doubt that the Italians are being well coached and managed but I feel that until he can improve the Italian franchises then it's hard to see how success will come.

Treviso have won two matches in this Guinness Pro12 and Zebre only one. O'Shea's players come into international camp with their confidence levels at rock bottom.

As the saying goes: "winning is a habit", but so is losing.

The Argentines have improved their national team with a clear alignment between their Super Rugby franchise and the Pumas. Italy need to maximise their return on investment from their two franchises before they start to see consistency in the blue shirts. The talk of relegation from the Six Nations will not go away if they are uncompetitive in the next World Cup cycle.

Schmidt will be very happy with the reaction he got from his players. Paddy Jackson has had another opportunity to control the team which is important as Ireland need to continue to develop their squad depth. Niall Scannell can be really proud of his debut and Schmidt was able to get his bench into the fray early.

There were no poor individual performances in an Irish shirt and Simon Easterby will be happy that the lineout was a good source of possession.

Italy were never going to test our defence in the same way the Scots did as they haven't got the talent or the attacking structures built in yet. But Andy Farrell, who was under the spotlight last week, will have been happy with our appetite to defend and our communication and urgency in defence was much better. When Schmidt unloaded the bench the acceleration continued and Ireland managed to add four more tries to their tally. Craig Gilroy deserves an honourable mention for his hat-trick off the bench. These scores could be crucial in the battle to win the championship.

The week off will give the Irish management a great opportunity to prepare for what will be a completely different challenge when the French come to Dublin in two weeks.

In sport, how you respond to disappointment decides how successful you will be and yesterday's performance has put Ireland back on track. Job done for now.

Sunday Indo Sport

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