Ireland's Italian job follows a well-worn script
Restorative outing for Ireland’s attack as tries mount up against outclassed visitors
Jacob Stockdale gets past Jayden Hayward of Italy on his way to scoring Ireland’s eight try at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Ireland 56 Italy 19
As ever when playing Italy, another handsome win has to be put in context. Of Ireland’s 37 tries since the start of the 2016 Six Nations, 26 of them have now come against Italy.
Nevertheless, it’s the same for others, as the introduction of a bonus point system has only further encouraged Italy’s opponents to start chasing tries from early on against them, and ultimately a team can only beat what’s put in front of them.
There was much to admire in this Irish performance, and after their tryless if epic win in Paris, it was a restorative 80 minute outing for their attacking game especially. Such was their vice-like grip in the first half especially that apart from three spillages, there were almost no blemishes.
Overall, they had a 100 per cent return from their set-pieces and mauls, not to mention from eight conversions as well, and a 98 per cent return from their rucks, while in that first half there were only two missed tackles, and one penalty conceded. Those are some figures.
It wasn’t just the quantity of the rucks but the quality, and with the forecast rain holding off a week on from sodden Paris and with Romain Poite ensuring quicker ball than Nigel Owens did, Conor Murray was in Rolls Royce mode.
The forwards having done the grunt work, Murray provided the try-scoring passes for tries by Robbie Henshaw and the impressive Bundee Aki, his first for Ireland, and Murray was creator-in-chief and finisher of, perhaps, the pick of Ireland’s eight tries.
First Murray looped around Dan Leavy, before Iain Henderson’s decoy run, then linked with Jacob Stockdale, who freed Jack Conan and he attacked Tommaso Allan’s inside shoulder to put Murray away on his outside. This was another example of the improved link play between forwards and backs this season.
In truth, the bonus point almost felt a little belated, even though it came in the 35th minute. It emanated from good work in defence, notably from the props, as Andrew Porter felled Sergio Parisse and then Jack McGrath enveloped Braan Steyn for Dan Leavy to latch onto the ball, as he does, and win the turnover.
Transitioning swiftly to attack, thanks to Conan picking up the loose ball and Sexton straightening the line, Bundee Aki saw Tommaso Boni shooting up again on the outside. Whereas before he went through with the called pass and saw it slapped to the ground, this time Aki pulled the ball back in, stood up Luca Bigi, accelerated past him on the outside into the gap vacated by Boni – who was again poor defensively in the key decision-making role of outside centre – and put Keith Earls over with a a fine left to right pass.
This was Earls’ sixth try against Italy and 27th in total for Ireland, putting him within two of Denis Hickie and three of Tommy Bowe, who is the second highest Irish try scorer of all time behind the great one.
Earls, at peace with himself mentally and physically in prime nick, is maintaining the best form of his career, won virtually every ‘moment’ he was involved in, making line breaks, beating defenders, catching another cross-kick, and scoring that try.
Two of the four second-half tries, Henshaw’s second and Stockdale’s first, were the product of Italian handling errors, while forward grunt work earned a try for Best and another for Stockdale courtesy of pull-back passes by Best and Joey Carbery which had the Italians all at sea.
All of this has, of course, to be measured against the opposition, for while the Italians have rarely brought a better attacking backline to this venue, rarely have they brought a more impotent pack or such a muddled and often hapless defence, which had more holes than a soup strainer. Of their 27 missed tackles, 15 of them were by their three-quarter line.
Yet there were a few Irish flaws and certainly enough for Schmidt to get his teeth into for that famed Monday review.
Ireland left at least two tries behind them, first when failing to convert three successive attacking set-pieces off penalties in the first half, and secondly when Romain Poite was the culprit when filling one of the many gaps in a porous Italian defence and blocking Peter O’Mahony’s inside pass to Rob Kearney. This being his 14th successive Test without a try, the full-back’s frustration was manifest.
At half-time, O’Shea set his team a target of four second-half tries and a bonus point. They nearly did so too. First Tommaso Castello burned Dan Leavy for Tommaso Allan to score on his inside, then their brilliant 21-year-old full-back, fielded a huge clearance kick by Carbery to step Jordan Larmour – it could be the first of many dancing head to heads between these two – and link with Parisse, whose pass inside was turned into a try by Edoardo Gori, before Minozzi scored in the corner himself, for what will surely be the first Test try of many in his career.
But for oul’ man Earls Italy would have claimed a bonus point too. Mattia Bellini picked off Carbery’s pass after some wondrous footwork by Larmour gave a glimpse into the future, but was hunted down by a defiant Earls to a huge ovation from crowd and team-mates alike.
Akin to Jamie Heaslip denying Stuart Hogg what looked like a certain try on that unforgettable final Super Saturday in 2015, Earls’s selfless 70 metre chase could potentially be significant too. Ireland ultimately won that 2014 Six Nations on points’ difference by six points, and in the context of Ireland’s points’ difference, it was as good as a try at the other end.
Scoring sequence: 11 mins Henshaw try, Sexton con 7-0; 14 mins Murray try, Sexton con 14-0; 20 mins Aki try, Sexton con 21-0; 35 mins Earls try, Sexton con 28-0; (half-time 28-0); 45 mins Henshaw try, Sexton con 35-0; 53 mins Best try, Carbery con 42-0; 56 mins Allan try and con 42-7; 60 mins Stockdale try, Carbery con 49-7; 66 mins Gori try, Allan con 49-14; 70 mins Stockdale try, Carbery con 56-14; 75 mins Minozzi try 56-19.
IRELAND: Rob Kearney (UCD/Leinster); Keith Earls (Young Munster/Munster), Robbie Henshaw (Buccaneers/Leinster), Bundee Aki (Galwegians/Connacht), Jacob Stockdale (Ballynahinch/Ulster); Jonathan Sexton (St Mary’s College/Leinster), Conor Murray (Garryowen/Munster); Jack McGrath (St Mary’s College/Leinster), Rory Best (Banbridge/Ulster) (capt), Tadhg Furlong (Clontarf/Leinster), Iain Henderson (Ballynahinch/Ulster), Devin Toner (Lansdowne/Leinster), Peter O’Mahony (Cork Constitution/Munster), Dan Leavy (UCD/Leinster), Jack Conan (Old Belvedere/Leinster).
Replacements: Andrew Porter (UCD/Leinster) for Furlong (4 mins), Quinn Roux (Galwegians/Connacht) for Henderson, CJ Stander (Shannon/Munster) for Conan (both half-time), Jordan Larmour (St. Mary’s College/Leinster) for Henshaw (45 mins), Kieran Marmion (Corinthians/Connacht) for Murray, Joey Carbery (Clontarf/Leinster) for Sexton (both 51 mins), Sean Cronin (St. Mary’s College/Leinster) for Best (61 mins), Cian Healy (Clontarf/Leinster) for McGrath (68 mins).
ITALY: Matteo Minozzi (Zebre); Tommaso Benvenuti (Benetton Rugby), Tommaso Boni (Zebre), Tommaso Castello (Zebre), Mattia Bellini (Zebre); Tommaso Allan (Benetton Rugby), Marcello Violi (Zebre); Nicola Quaglio (Benetton Rugby), Luca Bigi (Benetton Rugby), Simone Ferrari (Benetton Rugby), Alessandro Zanni (Benetton Rugby), Dean Budd (Benetton Rugby), Sebastian Negri (Benetton Rugby), Braam Steyn (Benetton Rugby), Sergio Parisse (Stade Francais) (capt).
Replacements: Leonardo Ghiraldini (Toulouse) for Bigi (45 mins), Andrea Lovotti (Zebre) for Quaglio (37 mins), Maxime Mbanda (Zebre) for Steyn (45 mins), Tiziano Pasquali (Benetton Rugby) for Ferrari, Jayden Hayward (Benetton Rugby) for Boni (both 55 mins), Federico Ruzza (Benetton Rugby) for Negri, Edoardo Gori (Benetton Rugby) for Violi (both 58 mins). Not used – Carlo Canna (Zebre).
Referee: Romain Poite (France).