Thursday 22 March 2018

Six Nations: Five things we learned from Ireland v Italy

Robbie Henshaw, Ireland, is tackled by Michele Campagnaro, Italy
Robbie Henshaw, Ireland, is tackled by Michele Campagnaro, Italy
Robbie Henshaw, left, and Jared Payne
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

Five things we learned from Ireland's opening match against Italy

1  Patience pays off

Going on previous meetings with Italy, and especially in Rome, Ireland were never likely to be out of sight any time before the hour mark.

And so it again transpired as they wore down a stubborn Italian defence who got through 205 tackles (99 more than their opponents).

Joe Schmidt's team selection suggested that Ireland would look to keep it tight and punch holes through the middle and that's exactly what they did.

It was far from thrilling rugby but the game plan was effective and Ireland never looked in any real danger.

Without being spectacular, Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne had another effective outing in midfield and are forming a partnership that will certainly improve.

Leaving Rome which Schmidt described as a potential "banana skin" with a win is the most important thing and the fact that there's room for improvements all over the pitch typifies the strength of Irish rugby at the moment.

2 Strength in depth

The loss of Sean O'Brien at the final hour cannot be understated but once again, the strength of Ireland's squad shone as Tommy O'Donnell slotted in.

Already short of ball-carriers like Cian Healy and Jamie Heaslip, the back-row in particular stepped up in their absence.

O'Donnell had an excellent game which was capped by a well-worked second half try while Jordi Murphy had a fine Six Nations debut at number eight.

Peter O'Mahony led by example but it was Murphy's powerful ball-carrying that gave Ireland a decent attacking platform that they so often failed to capitalise on.

Murphy (17) and O'Mahony (15) combined for 33 carries while O'Donnell topped the tackle count (12) and made 43 metres - most of which came in his try in which he showed great feet and acceleration.

Despite the likes of Murphy and indeed Ian Keatley impressing, they are likely to be pushed out for the returning Heaslip and Johnny Sexton which is indicative of the quality that Schmidt now has at his disposal.

3 Murray remains as indispensable as ever

It seems as if his reputation grows as the stage gets bigger but Conor Murray's performance served as another reminder of just how important he is to Ireland in what is a vital year.

Fully aware of the expectation of him to take more responsibility with a debutant outside him, the scrum-half took a lot of the heat off his Munster team-mate.

Murray was visibly very vocal throughout and it was clear that he was doing his best to guide Keatley through proceedings. Keatley did settle after showing some early nerves and one wonders how much of that was a result of having a cool head like Murray inside him.

Murray's box-kicking game has improved immeasurably over the last few seasons and he capped a man-of-the-match performance with a sniping try that was perhaps somewhat surprisingly only his third intentional try in 31 caps.

4 Ross justifies Schmidt's faith

Although Mike Ross has been left out in the cold in recent weeks by Leinster coach Matt O'Connor and the IRFU only deemed him worthy enough of a one-year contract extension, there is life in the old dog yet.

Schmidt has proven time and time again that he is loyal to players who have served him well in the past and Ross certainly fits that bracket.

There's no doubting the fact that Marty Moore is the future tighthead prop but Ross still has a crucial role to play in Schmidt's master plan. The 35-year old put in a good 50-minute shift and the scrum wasn't in any way weakened by Moore's introduction as Ireland won all seven of their scrums and also won one against the head.

Ross may not start all five Six Nations games, but don't underestimate his importance for the year ahead because Schmidt won't.

5 Ireland will improve

Schmidt will be happy for all the focus and attention to be on England after the opening weekend as he will know that Ireland will get better as the weeks go by.

Defence coach Les Kiss will have been satisfied that Ireland didn't concede a try but tougher tasks certainly lie ahead.

Schmidt's assessment that a "15-20pc" improvement will be needed is correct and few would back against that being the case when France roll into town on Saturday.


What they said

Joe Schmidt

"For us, we certainly need to up our game. I do think that part of it was the pressure Italy put on us but, at the same time, I know we can do better than that and we're going to have to."

Sergio Parisse (Italy captain)

"You can't win a match if you don't have the ball - you can't defend for 70pc of the match. Ireland just put us under too much pressure, they had the ball all of the time. We held out for a long time but you can't hold out forever."

Quote of the weekend

‘While George is currently symptom free, retrospective video review of the second incident identified the mechanism of injury which was previously unsighted on the field of play’

The WRU about Friday night’s incident with George North

Numbers game


The number of tackles made by Francesco Minto, four ahead of team-mate George Biagi, while Luca Morisi had 19. Ireland's highest, Rob Kearney, had 12.


The difference in the number of caps won between the Ireland back row and the Italian back row. Ireland's total tally of 38 was dwarfed by that of Italian captain Sergio Parisse who has 109 and Alessandro Zanni who has 87.

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