Sport Six Nations

Friday 23 February 2018

Rome in ruins as Joe's men enjoy la dolce vita

Sean O'Brien enjoyed a highly encouraging return and was part of Ireland's back row tour de force. Photo: Sportsfile
Sean O'Brien enjoyed a highly encouraging return and was part of Ireland's back row tour de force. Photo: Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

No prizes for guessing how things panned out in Rome. Under strict instructions to put clear water between what happened in Edinburgh and what was needed here, Ireland washed over Italy like a tidal wave.

Its force surpassed by two points the previous biggest points tally against Italy - in summer 2003 - if not quite the biggest margin. It also beat by three points the previous biggest Championship tally - also against Italy, in 2000. As for Paddy Jackson, he got to equal Jonny Wilkinson's Championship record of nine conversions.

Injury issues centred on Robbie Henshaw and Rob Kearney, both of whom were replaced. Joe Schmidt reckoned that Henshaw's dead leg would be right within 48 hours, but the picture is less clear on Kearney who got an elbow into his bicep. He's likely to be scanned if the bruising doesn't subside, and the coach declared next Friday as the point at which his chances to be fit to face France in Dublin in a fortnight will also be clearer.

He had nothing to add on the chances of Johnny Sexton being fit.

Yet again CJ Stander picked up a man of the match award, this time on the back of a hat-trick, which brings him to six tries in just 12 Tests.

"The one thing I would say is that we have a back-row with big engines," Schmidt said afterwards. "And it certainly helps us negotiate our way around the pitch. It was good to build on the consistency of it (Ireland's start) and I suppose to build on that start, the continuation of pressure, that we didn't release the pressure valve."

Mostly for Ireland it was about fixing the stuff that went wrong against Scotland - so it wasn't as if Schmidt learned that much from the experience. Though confirmation of debutant Niall Scannell's suitability to the task was reassuring. He had to step in when captain Rory Best withdrew yesterday morning with a tummy bug.

"It's important to keep investing in them (new players) and it was great for him to make his Test debut, his Six Nations debut. Those first few scrums in the first 20 minutes went really well. He stepped up to the mark and he hit the mark in the lineout as well. As did James Tracy - his second Test match but his Six Nations debut. We learned that guys will grow and their confidence will grow if they get into the right frame of mind with the right players around them."

For Italy coach Conor O'Shea, it was a different story. He said his players had been mentally and physically battered by an Ireland side that is 100 per cent better than Wales, who beat Italy here last week.

"We have a really good group of players," he said. "People will smile wryly but we will never hang our heads. As I said to the team: it's always next job, next job. And the next job is against England in Twickenham.

"Everyone knows that there are a lot of changes that need to be made in Italian rugby. Anyone who has been involved in turning businesses around knows that there are things that have to happen. We are proud people sitting up here and we don't like days like this."

The Ireland squad will reconvene on Wednesday to begin preparations for the France game.

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