Monday 18 December 2017

Video: Neil Francis - Sexton key as Italians snuffed out

Ireland 42 Italy 10
Hungry pack dominates but tougher days lie ahead, writes Neil Francis

Donncha O'Callaghan secures lineout possession
for Ireland in Lansdowne Road yesterday
Donncha O'Callaghan secures lineout possession for Ireland in Lansdowne Road yesterday

In the unspoken sentiment of defeat the Italians will be profoundly dispirited after yesterday's result.

They were wonderfully competitive in certain sections of the game and the concussive power of their forwards has not diminished and yet they give England and France thorough examinations. They were unpicked by a clinical and competent Ireland side who never looked like losing a game they played with the confidence of a patient wolf.

Five tries on the scoreboard doesn't tell any lies. Could Italy have gotten any closer? Most assuredly they could. If their former star Diego Dominguez had been on the pitch yesterday they could have made this match altogether tighter.

The Irish were very glad to see Tobias Botes start for the Italians. I'm not sure how the South African-born player qualified to play for Italy, maybe he has an Italian grandmother, but if I had been picking the Italian side I would have selected his grandmother -- she most definitely would have been a superior tackler.

The Irish knew all about Botes and they specifically targeted his channels and he was forced to make 11 tackles, none of which he executed with any degree of surety. He only missed one tackle all day but every time he was engaged by the ball-carrier, Ireland always gain-lined. Indeed Keith Earls might not have scored Ireland's first try if he had come up against some of Italy's bigger backs.

It was Botes' kicking, both from hand and from the ground, which was principally the Italians' undoing. I have seen women pee standing up with better aim. Botes' success rate of 25 per cent from four penalties is just death when it comes to staying in a game. It is imperative that when you are playing away from home that you keep the scoreboard ticking over and it wasn't that Botes just missed the kicks, he missed them by a mile and he missed the drop goal from in front of the posts by more than 15 metres.

In the tight the Italians will have to evolve or die. There were only 12 scrums in the game. The absence of the iconic Martin Castrogiovanni did not make a whit of difference and his replacements Michele Rizzo and Lorenzo Cittadini did a reasonable job in the tight, although the last time I saw someone who resembled the pair of them -- they had to put the whole herd down.

Italy are not able to scrummage their way to victory and Ireland have better skill levels and better accuracy and execution when they got in to positions of advantage.

Ireland's pack on the other side of the gain-line were marvellously focused and were well geared towards engaging the Italians in the traditional encounter which normally turns into a fist-fight in a telephone box. Although there was disagreeable tension between the two sides and the usual measure of competitive passion, there was space to engage in football and with the pitch and the weather conditions both sides tried to do that.

Jonathan Sexton showed his worth in a game of this nature. He was lively with the sweetness of his passing, apart from one or two regrettable shanks, he controlled the game for Ireland and his body language exuded confidence.

Inside him, I'm still not sure about Conor Murray knowing when and how to mix his game. This is something that still eludes him. The introduction at the relatively early stage of 53 minutes of Eoin Reddan just brought a little bit more cohesion and bite to Ireland's attack. I think, too, that the introduction of Donnacha Ryan and Peter O'Mahony gave Ireland a better balance.

Stephen Ferris was by a long stretch Ireland's best backrow player, although he was quite miraculously, and unnervingly, stopped dead by a very determined Italian defence 10 metres either side of the breakdown. He got his dander up in the second half and made some explosive interventions as the game began to loosen up.

So, even though we got an awful lot of encouragement from yesterday's performance, did you get the sense that they could bring it a stage further and trouble France next Sunday? It is true that Ireland made very few mistakes and the number of enforced errors was cut down to the bare minimum. They leaked a try from a turnover at a lineout when Paul O'Connell was hassled in the air as Rory Best's throw was probably two inches overthrown, but Italy have scored tries against some very decent sides this season.

What worries me a little bit is that some of the failings from the Welsh game still persist. In the 22nd minute from a set scrum in their own half, Italy managed to get 15 metres across the gain-line to the wide outside without a hand being laid on them. Ireland are still persisting in hedging their bets -- this is something that they did against Wales. Even though their line speed had improved they were still quite content to try and persuade the Italians to drift a little bit on the back of a pretty weak push drift. If this happens against France, you don't need me to tell you what will happen. The French run straight and observe the fundamentals and if they are given room and the width outside and the only resistance is a semi-passive holding pattern -- then we are going to be in trouble.

Ireland only missed two tackles all day, but the skill levels of the Italians were never really going to upset them that much. The Italians also tried unsuccessfully to exploit Ireland's narrow defensive patterns and two or three times they were a pass away from opening Ireland up.

Ireland once again employed their choke tackle effectively and managed to pick off four turnovers from scrums on the back of that. I'm not sure whether the French will be that charitable and will, like the Welsh, attempt to get their ball-carrier to go to ground immediately and ruck over.

Ireland are probably a match away from getting into somewhere near full throttle. Some of their offloads were a synapse away from working and offensively they looked far more certain in terms of what they are trying to do. However, it might not be good enough for their Parisian sortie.

All is not well, but things are better.

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