Hollow victory for Ireland as poor form continues in Italy slog
Italy 16 Ireland 26
This was as hollow as bonus point wins can be, a struggle from start to finish that saw Ireland’s poor Six Nations continue into round three.
For the first time of the Conor O’Shea era, Italy truly troubled the country of the coach’s birth and were right in the game until the last 10 minutes when Conor Murray's try and conversion put some daylight between the teams.
Ireland's form dip will be of deep concern to coach Joe Schmidt. In the space of three months they've gone from dominating the world's best team to struggling against a game, but limited Italian side.
The coach handed out some opportunities to his squad men with mixed results. Dave Kilcoyne and Ultan Dillane were two of the team’s top performers, but Sean Cronin had a nightmare afternoon out of touch and was hauled ashore seven minutes after half-time.
Their lineout malfunctioned throughout, while their defence was stretched by O’Shea’s ambitious attacking plan.
Peter O’Mahony stood in as captain and led superbly, while Keith Earls was one of the team’s top performers but after all of the talk about an improved attacking display it was another abject day with ball in hand.
They face into the two remaining games still in contention for the title thanks to Wales' win over England, but a solid 80 minutes performance is the priority right now.
Ireland’s sloppiness started early, with Cronin overthrowing their first lineout and Andrea Lovotti turning over the hooker at a maul on their next visit to Italian territory.
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Still, they got ahead on the scoreboard after 12 minutes as Bundee Aki ran a powerful line off the tail of a lineout and 19 good phases later Quinn Roux followed up Chris Farrell’s drive to the line by powering through two Italian defenders with help from Dillane and Dave Kilcoyne.
Johnny Sexton sent the conversion over and the visitors began to enjoy themselves. Jayden Hayward did well to scramble back and get in ahead of Andrew Conway – on for the injured Aki – after Earls stepped his way through the Italian backline.
Tommaso Allan missed a chance to get the Azzurri off the mark after Seán O’Brien played the ball offside, but the Tullow native handed him another chance when he failed to release the tackler going for a poach and the out-half nailed the kick.
Italy were growing into the game, but they gifted the champions a second try when Dean Budd missed Sexton’s restart and Michele Campagnaro failed to react and that allowed Jacob Stockdale capitalise to collect the ball and run in untouched.
Sexton missed the conversion, but 12-3 up Ireland were in control going into the second quarter.
By half-time, they were behind. Sexton kicked a restart out on the full and when Cronin raced up offside, Allan narrowed the gap.
Stockdale took a superb Sexton drop-off, but another opportunity passed as Tito Tebaldi got in over the ball and forced a penalty.
Instead, it was the Azzurri who were getting on top. After captain Peter O’Mahony was punished for not rolling, Tebaldi tapped and went and Jordi Murphy did brilliantly to get back in time. Italy kept going and Ireland needed an O’Brien steal and a Sexton intercept to keep their opponents at bay.
Ultimately, the Italians wouldn’t be denied as the absence of Aki was felt in defence.
A bad day for Cronin got worse when his throw sailed over Roux. Tebaldi gathered and moved the ball left where Hayward stepped past makeshift centre Earls and left Rob Kearney for dead.
Earls made it back to deny him, but Federico Ruzzo carried hard up the middle and Allan moved the ball wide for Edoardo Padovani to score.
Allan missed the chance to put Italy in front, but they got there before the break as Tebaldi stripped Conor Murray in contact and raced clear. He chipped ahead and Ireland looked to have it covered, only for Padovani to shove Earls out of his way and get away with it.
Kearney couldn’t hold it and the winger regathered. Again, Italy spread the play wide and Stockdale did well to deny Maxime Mbanda before Luca Morisi powered his way through Chris Farrell to score.
Again, Allan missed the conversion which meant Ireland’s half-time deficit remained at four points.
The confident home side started the second-half well but O’Mahony made a momentum-shifting turnover after a superb Ultan Dillane tackle.
Lovotti was harshly penalised for playing the ball offside and Sexton kicked to the corner. Murray quick-tapped a penalty after an Italian offside and, after a succession of pretty aimless phases, Earls exploited a gap caused by an injury to Jimmy Tuivaiti and picked his way through to score.
Murray took over the kicking tee from Sexton and nailed the conversion.
Italy kept coming, Kearney did well to hold off Padovani and then tackle Ruzza before Alessandro Zanni knocked on and Ireland’s scrum earned a penalty to alleviate the pressure. They managed to get into the ’22 again, but another promising position came to nothing as David Sisi knocked the ball from Murray’s grasp.
Another chance came and went as a cleverly worked midfield move saw Sexton release Earls up the middle. Padovani and Hayward converged on him and the Moyross man’s pass to Stockdale didn’t stick.
They got their fourth try in fortuitous circumstances. Niall Scannell’s throw was picked off by Ruzza but his slap-down went into touch. Take two and the Munster man hit O’Mahony and when the maul came down Murray stepped through the debris to score.
He converted his own try and Ireland were finally comfortable on the scoreboard.
A Scannell high tackle gave the Italians a chance to come back at them, but O’Mahony poached the lineout and John Cooney cleared.
Still, they couldn’t relax and needed a strong Scannell poach under the posts after another promising attack.
Ian McKinley missed a chance to earn O'Shea's first bonus point and when Stockdale ran the kick return deep into Italian territory, but debutant Jack Carty knocked on his pass to bring a diffiult day at the office to its conclusion.
ITALY – J Hayward; E Padovani, M Campagnaro (T Castello 72), L Morisi, A Esposito; T Allan (I McKinley 74), T Tebaldi; A Lovotti (C Traore 61), L Ghiraldini (capt), S Ferrari (T Pasquale 52); F Ruzza, D Budd; J Tuivaiti (D Sisi 52), M Mbanda (A Zanni 43), B Steyn.
IRELAND - - R Kearney; K Earls, C Farrell, B Aki (A Conway 13), J Stockdale; J Sexton (J Carty 78), C Murray (J Cooney 71); D Kilcoyne (J McGrath 63), S Cronin (N Scannell 48-74), T Furlong (J Ryan 63); U Dillane (I Henderson 33 - 39), Q Roux (I Henderson 58); P O’Mahony (capt), S O’Brien (J van der Flier 58), J Murphy.
Ref – G Jackson (New Zealand)