Ireland get job done against Italy to keep alive Six Nations hopes

Will Connors and Hugo Keenan were both on the scoresheet in their international debuts

Ireland 50 Italy 17

Ireland duly jumped to the top of the 2020 Guinness Six Nations table and head into next Saturday’s final round of matches and the finale against France in Paris knowing the title is within their grasp.

Although they achieved the primary goal of a bonus point win over Italy by the hour mark, and went on to score seven tries, there’ll be a nagging feeling that they might well have further improved their points differential. Even more annoyingly, they conceded a second try with the last play of the game.

The net effect means Ireland’s points difference is +38, whereas England are +15, and presuming Eddie Jones’ team make that up with interest in Rome next week then, in all probability, Ireland will need a bonus point win in Paris.

Still, there was plenty to admire in this performance and Ireland should only improve.

Although they lost their way a little in the third quarter, there was plenty of the “intent” attack coach Mike Catt was looking for in everything Ireland did, not least in defence, where Will Connors injected real energy in both tackle effectiveness and quantity. His tackle count of 19 led the way just ahead of Tadhg Beirne and earned him the Man of the Match award, while there were two tries for the other starting debutant, Hugo Keenan.

Akin to Norway in Eurovision Song Contests of yore, the Italians had twice managed zero points in two of their three previous games. Yet, allowing for the quality of the opposition, Ireland’s defence coach, Simon Easterby, will have enjoyed much of what he saw, until the final play anyway.

Italy played with plenty of ambition and looked to move the point of attack but Ireland’s line speed, after an early blip, and tackle execution in defence was so good that they won 14 turnovers in the jackal or with the choke tackle.

Andrew Porter, James Ryan and Caelan Doris were among others who all had big games. Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton looked assured and on top of their games, Bundee Aki brought unrelenting carrying and tackling, while the re-jigged back three provided a sharp cutting edge.

Jacob Stockdale visibly enjoyed himself no end in reverting to his under-20 position at full-back, always looking a threat, and, aside from becoming the first Irish debutant to score two tries on his debut since Dave Kearney against Samoa in 2013, Hugo Keenan had a typically effective all-round game.

For all his good form for Leinster, Keenan has now scored as many tries in his burgeoning Test career after a debut to dream of, save for the absence of his family and friends or any crowd as the anthems were sung to a silent backdrop.

Indeed, there was no presidential greeting beforehand in a low-key pre-match build-up before the two squads stood in silence as a protest against racism in rugby, although neither team took the knee.

Ireland didn’t make the most auspicious of starts. In their desire to inject very quick line speed into their defence, they left a gap between CJ Stander and Sexton which Jake Polledri steamed through and then drew Stockdale to send scrumhalf Marcello Violi toward the posts with an inside pass.

He was hunted down and tackled just short of the line by his opposite number Murray. However, Murray was not only penalised for not rolling away but also sinbinned as Italy’s 20-year-old debutant Paolo Garbisi opened the scoring.

Ireland managed the next 10 metres so well that they actually scored 10 unanswered points.

Rob Herring, Beirne and Porter combined in a choke tackle on Carlo Canna to earn an attacking scrum. Not surprisingly Garry Ringrose, who was a sub scrumhalf to Charlie Rock in his Junior Cup days with Blackrock and could probably play anywhere in the backline, went in to that position.

When Sexton tapped a penalty into the corner, Ringrose even had a Murray-like snipe off the maul, and tried his hand again, before the pack kept it to themselves and Stander atoned by powering through Braam Steyn’s tackle to score his 11th try in 42 Tests for Ireland. Some strike rate for an 8.

Stander soon set the trend of the first-half by earning a turnover penalty in the jackal and, although Stockdale couldn’t hold onto Ringrose’s slightly low pass, a big Irish scrum paid off after Luca Bigi couldn’t complete his strike and Sexton made it 10-3 before Murray returned.

Alas, Ringrose departed for a HIA to be replaced by Robbie Henshaw in the 27th minute and didn’t return, and the only other blemish on Ireland’s landscape was coughing up a couple of attacking lineouts.

Even so, the two debutants immediately combined to telling effect when Keenan and Connors chased the former’s long kick and combined to force a spillage from Jayden Hayward.

Again going to the corner, Ireland went through the phases before Aki shifted Murray’s pass on to Henshaw, who skipped Stockdale to hit Keenan on the left touchline.

Keenan stepped inside the fairly inconsequential tackle of Hayward before showing surprising strength to power through Edoardo Padovani and Luca Mirisi to score his first Test try on the half-hour.

His second appeared to arrive within four minutes. Stockdale, as he does, countered brilliantly from the left hand touchline line well inside his own 10 metre line before linking with Keenan for a fine finish from 35 metres out. But on recourse to the video, the English officials deemed Ryan had tugged Marco Lazzaroni in preventing a “possible” tackle. It was a marginal call.

In any event, at the high point of an industrious first half, Doris followed up a typical chop tackle by Connors to complete a steal in the jackal, regather the ball and burst out of the 22 before linking with Aki, who in turn had Murray in support.

Showing his innate footballing ability, Murray executed a perfectly weighted and angled kick ahead for Keenan to steam onto the ball and score. The unerring Sexton landed his second consecutive touchline conversion for a 24-3 half-time lead.

However, the third quarter became much more of a stop-start affair, with Ireland’s concession of penalties enabling Italy to have more of the possession. Then, turning up the chase for that bonus point, Sexton’s skip pass to put Henshaw away, with Keenan on his outside, was picked off one-handed by Padovani on halfway for him to score under the posts.

Angered, Ireland responded by upping their intensity, twice going to the corner before Dave Heffernan, on for his second cap, hit Doris at the tail and a well-choreographed maul steamed over the line for Connors to also score on his debut.

After Henshaw and Keenan combined in behind the blue line to free Stander, Aki’s typical effective clearout and Doris’ hard line, footwork and big carry were the key before Sexton powered over. Ironically, he then missed his first conversion of the day.

Soon after, Connors’ work in defence was again rewarded when Stander moved on turnover ball to Peter O’Mahony whose neat, one-handed offload freed Aki for another fine finish. Sexton, from the touchline, rediscovered his kicking groove before he joined Ryan, Doris and Murray on the sidelines.

After a fine penalty to within eight metres of the corner by Ross Byrne, Heffernan hit Beirne at the tail and was the beneficiary of another strong maul to mark his home debut with a try.

But after Byrne’s quickly taken drop-kicked restart gave Ireland another play, they couldn’t deal with the final restart, and compounded this by conceding a soft, if very deftly taken, try to Garbisi two minutes into overtime.

Scoring sequence: 4 mins Garbisi pen 0-3; 8 mins Stander try, Sexton con 7-3; 14 mins Sexton pen 10-3; 30 mins Keenan try, Sexton con 17-3; 36 mins Keenan try, Sexton con 24-3; (half-time 24-3); 55 mins Padovani try, Garbisi con 24-10; 61 mins Connors try, Sexton con 31-10; 65 mins Sexton try 36-10; 69 mins Aki try, Sexton con 43-10; 80 mins Heffernan try, Byrne con 50-10; 80 (+2 mins) Garbisi try and con 50-17.

Ireland: Jacob Stockdale (Ulster/Lurgan); Andrew Conway (Munster/Garryowen), Garry Ringrose (Leinster/UCD), Bundee Aki (Connacht/Galwegians), Hugo Keenan (Leinster/UCD); Jonathan Sexton (Leinster/St Mary's College, capt), Conor Murray (Munster/Garryowen); Cian Healy (Leinster/Clontarf), Rob Herring (Ulster/Ballynahinch), Andrew Porter (Leinster/UCD), Tadhg Beirne (Munster/Lansdowne), James Ryan (Leinster/UCD), Caelan Doris (Leinster/UCD), Will Connors (Leinster/UCD), CJ Stander (Munster/Shannon).

Replacements: Robbie Henshaw (Leinster/Buccaneers) for Ringrose (27 mins), Dave Heffernan (Connacht/Buccaneers) for Herring (51 mins), Ed Byrne (Leinster/UCD) for Healy (56 mins), Finlay Bealham (Connacht/Corinthians) for Porter, Ultan Dillane (Connacht/Corinthians) for Ryan (both 63 mins), Peter O'Mahony (Munster/Cork Constitution) for Doris, Jamison Gibson Park (Leinster) for Murray (both 67 mins), Ross Byrne (Leinster/UCD) for Sexton (70 mins).

Sinbinned: Murray (4-14 mins).

Italy: Jayden Hayward (Benetton Rugby); Edoardo Padovani (Benetton Rugby), Luca Mirisi (Benetton Rugby), Carlo Canna (Zebre Rugby Club), Mattia Bellini (Zebre Rugby Club); Paolo Garbisi (Benetton Rugby); Marcello Violi (Zebre Rugby Club); Danilo Fischetti (Zebre), Luca Bigi (Zebre Rugby Club, capt), Giosuè Zilochhi (Zebre Rugby Club), Marco Lazzaroni (Benetton Rugby), Niccolò Cannone (Benetton Rugby), Sebastian Negri (Benetton Rugby), Braam Steyn (Benetton Rugby), Jake Polledri (Gloucester Rugby.

Replacements: Gianmarco Lucchesi (Benetton Rugby) for Bigi, Simone Ferrari (Benetton Rugby) for Fischetti, Pietro Ceccarelli (Brive) for Zilochi, David Sisi (Zebre Rugby Club) for Cannone (all 47 mins), Federico Mori (Kawasaki Robot Calvisano) for Morisi (54 mins), Johan Meyer (Zebre Rugby Club) for Lazaronni (63 mins), Maxime Mbanda (Zebre Rugby Club) for Negri (68 mins), Callum Braley (Benetton Rugby Club) for Violi (72 mins).

Referee: Matthew Carley (England).

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