Wednesday 26 September 2018

'If you said to me two weeks ago we would have nine points and a 32-point differential I'd have bitten your hand off'

Ireland 56 Italy 19

Conor Murray races clear to score. Photo: Sportsfile
Conor Murray races clear to score. Photo: Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

In Ireland's Six Nations history very rarely has there been a bad time to play Italy. Their experiences in Rome in 2011 and 2013 went from uncomfortable to bizarre, but aside from them this fixture has been largely about banking points.

When the calendar brings Italy to Dublin the record has been unblemished. Meeting a week after Ireland had been struggling to score tries, and the pressure that induces, sets off alarm bells. Factor in a mild and dry afternoon - contrary to the forecast - and the home team were not long about filling their boots.

It wasn't without cost, for Ireland or Leinster - where Leo Cullen will be less sanguine about the Champions Cup quarter-final - with first Tadhg Furlong pulling up with a hamstring, and then, in the second half, Robbie Henshaw badly damaging a shoulder in the act of scoring his second try.

Joe Schmidt refused to rule either player out of the next round, against Wales in a fortnight, and both will be scanned today. Given the amount of pain Henshaw was in, it would be remarkable if he is playing again soon. Jack Conan also hurt a shoulder - the coach was optimistic about a quick return for the No 8.

"If you said to me two weeks ago we would have nine points and a 32-point differential I'd have bitten your hand off," Schmidt said of Ireland's position going into the mini break.

"We do feel we've gained a bit of confidence having gone to France and then the bonus-point win here against Italy. We're heading in the right direction but Wales will be a whole different scenario."

Tadhg Furlong was forced off after just four minutes. Photo: Sportsfile
Tadhg Furlong was forced off after just four minutes. Photo: Sportsfile

You feel for teams sometimes when they are under the pump and their opponents refuse to cooperate. Penalty five metres out? Scrum please. Another penalty? Eh, we'll scrum again thanks. Penalty again? Right, we'll nudge this to the corner and take you on there.

This was exactly Italy's experience midway through the second quarter. Already they were 21-0 behind and would have paid the campers to shift their green tent to another field. Instead they were put through the wringer - not immediately at the cost of more points as it happened, but they came soon enough anyway.

By half-time the target of a bonus point had been hit. It was a period in which Ireland had averaged 70 per cent between possession and territory. Their dominance never wavered after the break either, even with Italy losing the try count only 4-3 in that period.

There wasn't too much the Italians could take from the game - at least not anything they hadn't already filed away. They know how to play the game but just don't have enough players to do it near well enough. At least not against this quality of opposition.

Sergio Parisse illustrates perfectly their plight: at his peak he was one of the very best No 8s in the world. He is well over the brow of that hill, but in a set-up with no depth he has to continue. Frequently he looks unhappy on the field - yesterday especially.

His team had to make 155 tackles to Ireland's 88, and in that scenario it figured that their penalty count (11) would be nearly four times Ireland's.

"We didn't have the ball in the first half," Conor O'Shea said afterwards. "We couldn't create pressure - we couldn't get a foothold. Every breaking ball seemed to go into an Irish hand which is down to their great play. This is top-level sport and without the ball it's difficult."

No matter who you are playing, conceding just three penalties over 80 minutes is very good. And a lot of what Ireland did here was in that category. Conor Murray was man of the match but Schmidt would have been best pleased with the performance of Andrew Porter.

Jacob Stockdale of Ireland scores his side's sixth try. Photo: Sportsfile
Jacob Stockdale of Ireland scores his side's sixth try. Photo: Sportsfile

You'd imagine it's a while since the young tighthead, earning his fourth cap, played over 75 minutes of rugby, but virtually from the moment he came on for Furlong, he made a very positive impression. The first scrum went down on his side - thereafter he drew no attention from referee Romain Poite - who was very good - in a performance that featured 13 carries, a stat any prop would be delighted with.

"Fair play to Andrew," Schmidt said. "We thought it was a fantastic investment in him getting that amount of time, and he acquitted himself very well."

So the disruption after Furlong was minimal. The set-piece was strong and both Murray and Johnny Sexton at halfback were first class, as was Keith Earls whose chase back to prevent a try in the dying minutes summed up his attitude. Five of the backs touched down - making most of all the ball they were getting - and there were eight tries in all for Ireland.

They had got out to 42-0, by 53 minutes, before Italy got off the mark, with the best of their lot going to Tommy Allan.

"We know what level we have to get to," O'Shea said. "We knew this would be the hardest of hard days."

Ireland have a few more of them around the corner.

Scorers - Ireland: Henshaw, Stockdale 2 tries each; Murray, Aki, Earls, Best try each; Sexton 5 cons, Carbery 3 cons. Italy: Allan try, 2 cons; Gori, Minozzi try each

Ireland: R Kearney; K Earls, R Henshaw (J Larmour 45), B Aki, J Stockdale; J Sexton (J Carbery 51), C Murray (K Marmion 51); J McGrath (C Healy 68), R Best (capt) (S Cronin 61), T Furlong (A Porter 4), I Henderson (Q Roux h-t), D Toner, P O'Mahony, J Conan (CJ Stander h-t), D Leavy.

Italy: M Minnozi; T Benvenuti, T Boni (J Hayward 55), T Castello, M Bellini; T Allan, M Violi (A Gori 59); N Quaglio (A Lovotti 38), L Bigi (L Ghiraldini 45), S Ferarri (T Pasquali 55), A Zanni, D Budd, S Negri (F Ruzza 59), P Parisse (capt), A Steyn (M Mbanda 45)

Referee: R Poite (France)

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