Ireland v Italy: Five things we learned as rugby’s laws come under spotlight

Nathan Johns looks at the controversies and key moments from the Aviva Stadium

The lopsided nature of Ireland’s 57-6 victory over Italy ensures that the main talking point can only really be the scrum law that forced the visitors to play the majority of the game with 13 men, killing off any hopes of a remotely close contest.

Scrum Farce

It’s worth clarifying exactly what happened. In the seventh minute, starting Italy hooker Gianmarco Lucchesi departed due to injury with his arm in a makeshift sling. Just over 10 minutes later his replacement, Ephalahame Faiva, saw red for a high shot on Dan Sheehan.

The result was the game had to go to uncontested scrums since Italy had no fit specialist hooker. Rugby’s laws state that if a side loses two of its specialist frontrows due to first a contact injury and then a red card, they must forfeit an extra player beyond whoever was sent off, leaving only 13 on the park; Faiva’s red card essentially cost Italy two bodies.

It’s an incredible law that has the capacity to ruin the game as a spectacle, as we saw on Sunday. No doubt it opens up a philosophical question for the game: do we really value the scrum so much that a side must be severely punished when they are responsible for uncontested set-pieces?

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You can make up your own mind on that one. Italy outhalf Tommaso Allan – who turned down a Six Nations squad spot to focus on playing for Harlequins in the Premiership – made his feelings very clear on Twitter: "What a way to ruin a rugby game . . . this rule doesn't make sense."

Communication Breakdown

Speaking of not making sense, it was a tricky day for referee-captain communication. When referee Nika Amashukeli told Italy skipper Michele Lamaro of the farcical scrum situation,saying that they would have to bring on a frontrow and sacrifice another body, it took a ridiculous amount of time for that extra man to depart – Lamaro scarcely able to believe what he was hearing.

From there, Italy still had to commit eight players to each scrum even though uncontested, and Amashukeli lost patience having to remind them at every set-piece, with some particularly strong words being shared with Lamaro.

To top it all off, even the referee himself was confused when Lamaro asked as the players jogged off for half-time could contested scrums be brought back and Italy restored to 14 if one of the props decided he was comfortable hooking. Amashukeli seemed to incorrectly suggest that this was allowed, before his assistants Matthew Carley and Christophe Ridley quickly corrected him.

In any case, this sudden change of heart from the props would not have happened. Italy boss Kieran Crowley stated firmly after full-time “I was not prepared to put props who have never hooked before into that position.”

It was a tricky assignment for Amashukeli’s first Six Nations gig as the main man. There was, though, still time for a lighthearted moment with Ireland skipper Peter O’Mahony. The Munster backrow, clearly frustrated with Italian time-wasting tactics at the lineout, told the referee that they couldn’t be taking this long. When the Georgian official asked what the problem was, O’Mahony came back with a frustrated quip: “Otherwise we’ll be here all day!”

By full-time it was the Italians who felt like they were out there all day.

Backrow Supremos

We might well be sick of hearing about all the hard work Josh van der Flier has done on his ball-carrying, but it’s hard not to bring it up again after a performance like today. Whereas many of his Ireland team-mates had their carrying numbers inflated by running through the myriad of gaps that opened up in a defensive line that featured only 13 – and at times 12 – men, Van der Flier did his dirty work in the middle of the park by carrying through, rather than around, the blue jerseys.

His final stats read 55 metres off nine carries with one solitary defender beaten, though this doesn’t reflect the number of defenders who clung on but couldn’t prevent him from repeatedly getting over the gainline.

His backrow partner Caelan Doris was also outstanding. Given more freedom to carry in the number eight shirt, he made a ridiculous 101 metres with ball in hand, and was followed up by a similarly dynamic effort from Jack Conan.

Leaping Lowe

On his return from injury, James Lowe was everything we have come to expect of him and then some – 15 carries off his wing showed his usual appetite for work while his left boot was as big a weapon as ever, making 354 metres in total for Ireland. He of course got in for his pair of tries as well.

However, what caught the eye the most about Lowe’s performance was his solidity under the high ball. In the first half in particular, there were at least three occasions when Italy outhalf Paolo Garbisi kicked a high bomb into the Ireland 22. Time and again Lowe was the man to come down with the ball despite the presence of the Italian chasers, offering Ireland reassuring solidity and denying Italy an entry-point into the 22.

Notably, it was Lowe more often than not who was positioned to claim those high balls, rather than Mikey Lowry or Mack Hansen. Be that an intentional defensive ploy from Ireland or not, it was the Leinster wing’s unglamorous work that deserves plenty of plaudits on the day.

Italy Breakdown Fightback

It’s been a rough couple of weeks for Italy. From rumours of being kicked out of the Six Nations to Sunday’s drubbing caused largely by a now controversial scrum law, one would understandably feel sorry for them.

That said, you’d have to admire the way they managed to fire a few shots in defeat, albeit in limited bursts that never threatened to change the result.

The area in which they excelled predominantly was the breakdown. Before he was sacrificed for the scrum sins, Toa Halafihi had success in getting over the ball, while captain Michele Lamaro and loosehead Danillo Fischetti – the latter forced into a mammoth 80-minute shift – also secured breakdown turnovers, especially in the first 10 minutes of the second half.

Ireland’s problems in looking after their own ball didn’t last long, but are still worth noting. We all remember what happened when France launched a brutal assault on the Irish breakdown a fortnight ago. Everyone and his dog knows that sides need fast, clean ball to be successful, but nonetheless the Italian resistance offered Messrs Jones and Townsend another reminder of the best way of getting at this Irish side.