Work to do as Ireland avoid 'banana skin'
Italy 3 Ireland 26
WHEN Joe Schmidt spoke about Ireland cutting their cloth to best match up to opponents, we didn't realise that he meant creating a blanket and suffocating the life out of Italy.
This was not a classic game by any stretch of the imagination, but the champions came with a plan and even if they didn't always execute the plays, the overall picture worked out well in the end.
The men in green sucked the life out of the Stadio Olimpico by taking ownership of the ball and playing the game in Italian territory. They forced Sergio Parisse and Co into making tackle after tackle, knowing that as frustration increased discipline would go the other way.
After overcoming a rusty, error-strewn opening quarter, Ireland used their maul and scrum to good effect and built a score through the boot of Ian Keatley.
When referee Pascal Gauzere finally lost patience and sent Leonardo Ghiraldini to the sin-bin, they went for the jugular and scored two tries in three minutes before wrapping some key players in cotton wool with an eye on France next week.
If it left the watching 57,700 in the stadium or the folks back home cold, then that won't bother a happy Schmidt whose winning record stretches to eight on the bounce.
"If you were going to be hyper-critical today I think there's a danger of starting to erode confidence in players who really grew into the game well," he said.
"That scratchy start, for us to get past that and then to really squeeze them out of the game, I'm really happy with the way the players managed to do that.
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"We got asked to defend at times and we put our hands up and defended really strongly. When we did attack it wasn't as fluent as it otherwise might have been. I did think if we got maybe one or two scores in that first half - I think we were anxious, we were snatching at things.
"But in the context of that first 20 minutes, I'm really happy with the next 50 minutes that we put together, and then maybe in the last 10 minutes we maybe tried a little bit too hard when conditions became really difficult."
The coach saw plenty of room to improve on the display, but had fretted over a fixture that had danger written all over it, given Ireland had lost at the same venue two years ago, needed a late Ronan O'Gara drop-goal the time before and the fact that Italy usually start strong at home.
"It was a massive banana skin and you know you're going to be under a lot of pressure from these guys," he said.
"What happened last time, what happened the time before you know it's not a one-off that we came under pressure here two years ago.
"But, I'm personally relieved that we got through, that we have a (points) differential that we can be happy with and we know that there's going to be incredibly tough battles in the next two games and beyond. There's nothing easy in this tournament."
The Italian performance should give Schmidt few less sleepless nights in September. Ireland's World Cup opponents appear to be going backwards fast and offered little over the course of a frustrating afternoon.
Given the inexperience in the visiting back-row and backline and the disruption caused by Sean O'Brien's last-gasp withdrawal, the visiting team were vulnerable to an onslaught and, for a minute, it looked like being a difficult afternoon until Edoardo Gori's sneak up the left was ruined by a forward pass.
Keatley grew into his first Six Nations despite some difficult moments, kicking all of his goals and becoming more confident as it went on.
The first half was a frustrating affair, with Ireland rarely breaking from a conservative approach and when they did they invariably made a mistake.
Their patience was impressive, however, and the effect of winning so often over the course of the last 12 months was clearly evident. Even when things weren't quite going their way, they bought into the game plan fully.
Italy, meanwhile, wanted to play but couldn't get hold of the ball or establish a foothold in the contest.
After the game, Parisse - whose indiscipline had been costly to his side's chances - lamented the fact that Ireland hadn't played that well, conceding that it had been a frustrating outing.
"I don't think they put us under huge pressure but they had more possession, they were better in the lineout and they had the ball most of the time," he said.
"You can't defend for 80 minutes against a team like Ireland. If you expect to win matches you need more possession. We just spent our time in the field defending."
The statistics are striking and would have been worse had Italy not spent much the last 10 minutes in the Irish half chasing a consolation that was denied to them by the television match official for a knock-on Parisse denied he had committed before Kelly Haimona touched down.
Ireland had 63pc possession and the same amount of territory, forcing the Azzurri into 205 tackles compared to their own 106.
The first half was all ground and pound, with Ireland's mistakes limiting their attacking threat but Keatley able to kick his side into a 9-3 half-time lead, largely thanks to a dominant maul and Mike Ross's scrummaging.
After the break, there was a noticeable increase in tempo and Jordi Murphy was unleashed, appearing all over the pitch with strong carries.
Sean Cronin and Marty Moore were added and the pace and fluidity increased. Ireland knocked on the door for 24 minutes with only a further Keatley penalty to show for it, but after Robbie Henshaw had gone close the try was inevitable.
It came as Ghiraldini was finding his seat in the sin-bin, with the pack cleverly dummying the expected maul and Murphy peeling off the back.
He made it all the way to the line and Conor Murray did the rest, darting over to give Ireland an unassailable lead.
Tommy O'Donnell made sure of that a few minutes later, taking Ian Madigan's pass and arcing outside the fatigued Martin Castrogiovanni and brushing the lamentable Andrea Masi aside to score from 40 metres.
That had Ireland beginning to look to France. With key players to return and another week of training in camp, there is time for the necessary improvement to be achieved and Schmidt said there was no one area he was looking at.
"I think it's fairly global," he explained. "There were a few small errors fairly early in the game and if we can reduce those and maybe increase our effectiveness maybe five or ten per cent, you might get a 15 to 20pc improved performance and that might start to put us in the ball park.
"We're between 20-30pc off (the level England reached on Friday). I don't think we would have lived with them. We certainly need to up our game.
"I do think part of it was the pressure Italy put on us but I know we can do better than that."
ITALY - A Masi (G Venditti 77); L Sarto, M Campagnaro (T Allan 64), L Morisi, L McClean; K Haimona, E Gori; M Aguero (A De Marchi 55), L Ghiraldini, M Castrogiovanni (D Chistolini 70), G Biagi (M Fuser 75), J Furno, A Zanni (M Barbini 48), F Minto, S Parisse (capt).
IRELAND - R Kearney; T Bowe, J Payne, R Henshaw, S Zebo; I Keatley (I Madigan 68), C Murray (I Boss 69); J McGrath (J Cronin 67), R Best (S Cronin 48), M Ross (M Moore 52), D Toner, P O'Connell capt, P O'Mahony, T O'Donnell (I Henderson 74), J Murphy.
Ref - P Gauzere (France)
Rob Kearney (8)
During the first half, there were moments when Ireland looked in a wee bit of trouble in Rome and that's when Kearney stepped up and led, easing pressure on an inexperienced backline.
Tommy Bowe (6)
Can't be overjoyed with a game plan that limits his involvement and the times he did get a bit of grass to run into Keatley's pass was behind him. Sure to be more involved next week.
Jared Payne (7)
Signs of real progress during the second half as Payne and Henshaw linked well together and the Kiwi caused Italy plenty of trouble, carrying for a respectable 41 metres.
Robbie Henshaw (7)
Not a flawless Six Nations debut by any means, but Henshaw showed why Joe Schmidt wants him in the team with some big gains off first-phase ball and hits to boot. Growing into the jersey.
Simon Zebo (7)
On a day when Ireland lacked spark behind the scrum, Zebo's ability to think differently shone through and in the post-O'Driscoll era his capacity to deviate from the plan and try things is valuable.
Ian Keatley (7)
Overcame a shaky start and a chargedown that might have been more costly to take the game to Italy. Kicked all of his goals and became more accurate as the match went on. Can be happy.
Conor Murray (6)
Man of the match seemed a bit of a stretch for Ireland's first try-scorer who looked understandably rusty after four weeks on the sidelines. Should stand to him next week.
Jack McGrath (5)
Seems to be getting on the wrong side of referees these days, even if Martin Castrogiovanni is a formidable opponent. Wasn't as prominent in the loose as he might have been.
Rory Best (6)
Went off concussed after 46 minutes and had a quiet day at the office, worryingly missing three tackles. Lineout recovered after first botched effort came off a back.
Mike Ross (7)
Schmidt was vindicated in his selection of his go-to man who forced a number of key penalties off Matias Aguero who struggled all day before coming off. Will be happy after a difficult month.
Devin Toner (6)
The big man has Iain Henderson coming up on the rails with a head of steam and appeared to want the ball in open play. A decent day's work with lineout work exemplary as ever.
Paul O'Connell (6)
Despite an early missed kick-off and a lineout mix-up, he will reflect well on the impact the tight five had on the game. Will want to improve his carrying stats, after just 6 metres from 11 attempts.
Peter O'Mahony (7)
Took on plenty of ball during a hard-working, largely unrewarded shift. Carried 15 times for 26 metres and beat three defenders while also making all of his tackles on an industrious day.
Tommy O'Donnell (6)
Ireland's top tackler with 13 out of 13, the late call-up for Sean O'Brien seemed to struggle to make an impact with ball in hand until his excellent outside break for the second try.
Jordi Murphy (8)
Didn't make much impact on the first half, but the No 8 was excellent after the break as he took on plenty of ball and took the game to Italy. A fine Six Nations debut.
Sean Cronin (7) and Marty Moore (7) helped upped Ireland's physicality and pace when introduced in the second half, while Isaac Boss (6) was assured alongside Ian Madigan (6) when he came on. The fly-half nailed his one kick at goal and created O'Donnell's try, but wasn't helped by the heavy downpour. Iain Henderson (6) and Felix Jones (6) were also introduced, but the conditions worsened and Ireland finished the game on the back foot.
Joe Schmidt (7)
While not all of his players shone as he'd like, the Ireland coach could be satisfied with his day's work. It may have been unspectacular, but the game plan worked.