The final game of the fourth round of the 2020 Six Nations was the first game back in the tournament after lockdown. On paper, it looked like this was going to be a very easy game for Ireland, with Italy likely to be on the end of a thrashing, having failed to win a single point in this year’s tournament so far.
Ireland started well, showing their intent from the very beginning, and were putting plenty of pressure on Italy when out of possession. What was noticeable was that they were closing Italy down in two’s and three’s right next to the Italian try line, and the aim was obvious; score the four tries they required as early as possible. This led to their first try, with sustained pressure in the middle of the pitch coming through centre Garry Ringrose, who became the impromptu scrum-half following Conor Murray’s early yellow card. Ringrose has natural pace in possession, which is what makes him such a dangerous player, and, while at scrum-half, he was able to pick the ball up at the breakdown and drive forward through Italian defensive gaps, gaining ground for his team.
However, it wasn’t just centrally where Ireland carried a threat. Leinster winger Hugo Keenan, making his international debut, proved to be a handful for Italy, scoring the second and third tries for his side. The second came when Italy left too much space on the wings, having been sucked inside towards the middle of the pitch, with Conor Murray cleverly starting a series of long passes to find Keenan. The winger still had work to do to score, but this was the point at which Ireland began to take control of the game.
There was a third try almost a couple of minutes later, with full-back Jacob Stockdale breaking through and finding Keenan, but it was ruled out for a block from lock James Ryan. However, Keenan did get his third when Italy lost the ball after 16 phases in possession, with flanker Caelan Doris stealing the ball, and a combination of centre Bundee Aki and Conor Murray then got the ball forward for Keenan to go over the line with.
Despite this pleasing first half by Ireland, they didn’t start the second half at all well by their standards. They made a lot of errors in the early stages, which came from Italy’s early pressure; something we will come back to. Italy were also better at the breakdown than they had been in the first half, meaning that Ireland weren’t winning so many penalties there.
The thing Ireland needed was patience, because it was inevitable that Italy would run out of steam, as they had done in the first half. Once they got their fourth try from debutant flanker Will Connors, which sealed the bonus point that they needed to stay in the title race, they looked much happier, and more in control. The fifth try from Sexton, followed by further tries by centre Bundee Aki and substitute hooker Dave Heffernan, showed this regained confidence, and Italy were unable to hold them back in the latter stages.
Sexton did miss one conversion from a relatively easy position, so there were still signs of rustiness in the Ireland team. However, they will be happy to have got the victory and the bonus point, and the performance was very good overall.
Italy, meanwhile, started the game with an element of promise, and a plan on how they wanted to play the game tactically. One early move saw flanker Sebastian Negri break through Ireland’s defence after a delayed pass, which gave us hope that Italy might be able to compete in this game. Another moment, with Ireland making early runs to close down whichever Italian player had the ball, saw Italy counter this by kicking the ball into the space behind, giving Ireland something to think about, so there were good early signs from the Italians.
However, the thing that let Italy down, which we keep coming back to with them, was that they constantly gave away penalties for very simple things. This has always been their problem, and basic errors like being off their feet at the breakdown or not releasing the ball when tackled, as well as lineout errors, meant that, despite showing this early promise, they couldn’t make it last.
The thing that they didn’t do, which would have made a difference, albeit probably only a small one, was that they didn’t get any of their key attacking players into the game early enough. It took half an hour for speedy winger Mattia Bellini to get hold of the ball, and players like him and full-back Jayden Hayward needed to be involved much more, because they are the types of players that can cause problems for opponents.
They obviously talked together at half-time, because they came out looking reinvigorated and refreshed, and defended well in the early stages of the second half. The gaps in their defensive line from the first half were closed up, and they forced Ireland to kick to touch much more to force Italy back. The attack still needed improving generally, but there were some good signs that they were slowly beginning to turn a corner. One of these moments came when a pass from Johnny Sexton to centre Robbie Henshaw, who had come on early following an injury to Garry Ringrose, was intercepted by Italy winger Edoardo Padovani, who ran the majority of the pitch before getting the ball over the try line. It didn’t change much in the context of the game, but it highlighted that Italy have individual players who can cause problems, and these positives are what they need to hold onto.
However, their main issue, as well as the constant penalty concessions, is that, despite making good starts, they can’t keep them going for too long into the game. Ireland’s fourth try came from a maul following a lineout, which Ireland gained by kicking a penalty into touch, so Italy are their own worst enemy when it comes to these kinds of things. Italy never gave up, as we know they don’t; their second try from promising young fly-half Paolo Garbisi, who had a very good debut, showed this, as he ran through the Irish defence late on to score under the posts. When you consider that Italy have Matteo Minozzi, Mattia Bellini, Jayden Hayward, Edoardo Padovani, and now Paolo Garbisi in the middle, you can see their individual threats, but they just can’t get them all connected, and that is the thing that new permanent South African head coach Franco Smith will need to add to the top of his to-do list, with an “urgent” note next to it.
MAN OF THE MATCH:
A relatively simple one in this game; there was one player who was involved in everything for Ireland, and that was Will Connors. On his debut, he was the one helping to keep Ireland moving. He was very impressive on the ground in particular, at the heart of every breakdown situation, and capped off his display with a deserved try too. He is a definite future star of Irish rugby.
Ireland face a difficult task next weekend, as they travel to Paris to face a strong and in-form France in the night game next Saturday, whilst Italy finish off their Six Nations tounament, which they are now guaranteed to finish bottom and win the Wooden Spoon in, by hosting another team in the title hunt, England, in Rome in the middle game on the same day.