Wednesday 21 March 2018

Ireland inflict death by rugby on poor Italians in Rome

Italy 3 Ireland 26

Ruaidhri O'Connor at Stadio Olimpico

ON FRIDAY night in Cardiff the Six Nations got up and running with fireworks, drama and an occasion to remember. Ireland, however, prefer to keep things a little more low-key and eased their way into their campaign in Rome.

This was a win that ticked Joe Schmidt's boxes without ever really getting hearts racing. It's just how he would like it going into the dramatically more difficult week-two test against France in Dublin next Saturday.

Given the number of absent front-line players to come back in the interim, there were mitigating factors for the paucity of the champions' first-half performance against a poor Italy side, but by sucking the life out of the 57,700 Stadio Olimpico crowd with a conservative game plan, Schmidt got his reward after half-time.

Ireland's already mix-and-match line-up was weakened further in the warm-up when Seán O'Brien tweaked a hamstring. Tommy O'Donnell was promoted from the bench.

"His quad slipped out from under him and he just twinged his hamstring," Schmidt said of his openside. "We decided to err on the side of caution. He felt he could have played. He was very disappointed."

Ian Keatley kicked all of his goals and overcame a shaky start to perform well, while Mike Ross repaid Schmidt's faith with a strong display. Jordi Murphy was excellent after half-time, while Rob Kearney was an assured presence in an inexperienced backline.

Ireland's Tommy O'Donnell (C) runs to score during the Six Nations match between Italy and Ireland at the Olympic Stadium in Rome. Photo: Getty Images
Ireland's Tommy O'Donnell (C) runs to score during the Six Nations match between Italy and Ireland at the Olympic Stadium in Rome. Photo: Getty Images
Ian Keatley kicks a second half penalty
Robbie Henshaw is tackled by Francesco Minto and Sergio Paresse
Sean O'Brien makes his way to the bench to sit out the game

If the loss of O'Brien had Joe Schmidt on high alert, then the opening minute won't have soothed his mood as Paul O'Connell failed to gather the restart and Italy recovered the ball but the chance to get their dander up was spoiled by Edoardo Gori's forward pass to Luca Morisi and Mike Ross forced a penalty off Matias Aguero at the scrum to allow Ireland establish a foothold in the game.

Ian Keatley opened the scoring six minutes later with the Italian defence coming up offside after he had made a break from a pre-planned move, but he was having a difficult introduction to Six Nations rugby with his kicking from hand off-radar and one charge-down putting his side under pressure.

Thankfully for Ireland, Rob Kearney was bringing an assured presence at fullback, while his opposite number Andrea Masi was enduring a nightmare.

His knock-on from a Conor Murray box-kick was played by Luke McLean and that allowed Keatley to double Ireland's lead on the 20-minute mark.

Italy looked dangerous when they did get ball in hand, but Ireland's strategy of playing in the right areas and starving their opponents of possession worked in the end, even if it wasn't pretty.

The home side's problems were compounded by their own ill-discipline, particularly Sergio Parisse who shoved Tommy Bowe in the air on his own five-metre line when waiting for the winger to come down with Haimona's chip and would have had Ireland in all sorts of bother.

Keatley was growing into the role and saved Murray's bacon with a well-worked dummy and chip after the scrumhalf's pass to Henshaw had gone to ground, but the limited game plan was frustrating to watch as another Ross-won scrum penalty allowed Ireland field position which they utilised poorly by trying a series of 10 one-out carries which the Italian defence dealt with before Simon Zebo conceded a penalty for holding on.

The next chance they got, thanks to another Parisse error, they sensibly went to the maul which was hauled down by the Italians and that allowed Keatley to stretch the lead.

A 9-0 cushion would have satisfied Schmidt at the break, but Italy claimed the restart and this time they'd leave with points after Paul O'Connell sacked a lineout lifter and Haimona didn't err.

Ireland were noticeably more direct after half-time and took ownership of the ball in the third quarter, with Jordi Murphy noticeably carrying more and Robbie Henshaw prominent.

All that tackling took its toll on the Italians, but the visitors couldn't find the cutting edge despite some sharp play from Simon Zebo whose delayed pass allowed Jared Payne to put Robbie Henshaw in space down the left, but he was caught by the scrambling defence and Tommy O'Donnell knocked on.

Henshaw then spilled the ball when trying a kick after a strong Payne carry, but the attacking play was getting better with the introduction of Marty Moore and Seán Cronin's dynamism.

Another scrum penalty allowed Keatley to stretch his side's lead, before the game finally swung definitively in Ireland's favour just after the hour-mark as the maul finally took its toll.

Masi bundled a Tommy Bowe chip into touch, which allowed the champions draw a yellow card from Leonardo Ghiraldini for coming in at the side in an attempt to stop their march. Keatley kicked to touch and with Italy expecting a maul, Murphy peeled off the back and Murray followed up with a close-in sneak to score.

Keatley converted and was replaced by Ian Madigan who exploited a tired Italian defence off more lineout ball by releasing O'Donnell outside a wrecked Martin Castrogiovanni and the Munster flanker brushed off Masi's weak tackle to score under the posts.

Schmidt emptied his bench ahead of France and finished with Bowe playing in the centre and they seemed to declare their total rather than ram their advantage home. That sent Italy consolation hunting but the TMO denied Haimona for a fingertip knock-on by Parisse. It summed up their day.

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