Liam Toland: Ireland are back on the pitch but far from pitch perfect
Jean Kleyn underlined his value but Joey Carbery the key man on Saturday
Joey Carbery of Ireland looks for space under pressure from the Italian defence at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph: Dan Mullan/Getty Images
Prior to kick off the entire starting Italian team was drawn from just two teams. Even Matteo Minozzi’s late entry didn’t break the duopoly. Although due to start with Wasps this season, Minozzi et al were drawn from Zebre and Benetton and were vastly weaker than their last outing against France. That said, I learned much from their style.
On turnover ball the Italians were far more comfortable in finding subsequent space by shifting the point of attack away from the turnover area. They did this with a unity of purpose and ease. Twice the Italians kicked into Ireland’s in-goal area, having exploited space in a similar fashion that Benetton and Zebre achieved all last season. The rewards didn’t materialise, but the intent was obvious - get away from the heart of Ireland’s considerable strengths.
Italy also consistently read Ireland’s attacking plays focusing in on the first Irish ‘fatty’ receiver and when Joey Carbery became that first receiver, they read the ultimate next carrier off Carbery very well. Their lineout maul was also a joy to watch, but I had come to the Aviva specifically for the other set piece; the scrum. It wasn’t until the 53rd minute that Ireland’s scrum had its first real test.
Andrew Porter, Ireland’s powerful tighthead, had slipped across to the loosehead to accommodate John Ryan’s arrival with Jack McGrath’s day done. It was an Irish put in with a solid set up, not entirely comfortable but the ball was presented perfectly for Luke McGrath. But the next scrum will be crucial to World Cup selection. With Kleyn temporarily off for a blood injury Iain Henderson and Devin Toner were in the second row. Who would slot in behind John Ryan?
Henderson packed down behind the tighthead with Toner on the loosehead side. This scrum, an Italian put in was far from comfortable for the Irish with a penalty the result. Italy went for touch and ‘scored’ a try but the lineout didn’t go five. An expensive punishment (that wasn’t), but one which will impact Joe Schmidt’s second row selection. When Kleyn returned, so too did the scrum solidity.
Every team needs tighthead second row scrummagers and to Ireland’s options you can now add Kleyn. I’ve always been a fan of Kleyn and at times he has been Munster’s most important player. That said, this was an example of a choice between a ‘homegrown’ player versus an ‘import’. Now Ultan Dillane is a totally different second row to Kleyn, especially around the scrum, so it was not a direct choice. Either way, I’m still not a fan of this rule.
The player of the day was certainly Ireland’s starting outhalf. The ease with which he adapts to the international environment is a wonder to watch. Clearly the Irish methodology of multiple, quality precision rucks gives him a time clock to anticipate the arrival of the next ball and with it he is ready to unlock several options. He had the ability to kick off both feet when necessary to unlock an impressive Italian defence, carry to the line before finding a teammate or varying the tempo or tactics, as he did with several crossfield wiper Garryowens for both Irish wingers where Andrew Conway, all 5’11”, through grit, determination and buckets of skill gets way more than his fair share. But Carberry’s influence, albeit in a warm-up, is so influential it begs the questions; if fit, how can he be left on the bench? If the number 10 slot is gone (if) then how about number 15?
It was, and is, very helpful to Carbery to have the go to option of Chris Farrell. There were timing issues and the odd error but possibly the play of the day was big Devin Toner’s off the top lineout on 28 minutes. Like scrum time, the predictability of arrival of the ball into the scrumhalf’s hands is the key to unlocking defence off first phase.
Toner’s value is seen in this moment, as Farrell was able to guarantee the arrival of the ball into his hands within the exact time frame of release from his hooker’s lineout throw. Niall Scannell didn’t disappoint, so as soon as the ball released from his hands Farrell set off, running an explosive line in the knowledge that Toner’s delivery was guaranteed and his scrumhalf Luke McGrath’s subsequent pass would arrive exactly as planned into the exact area. This all afforded Farrell a brilliant run and resulted in Dave Kearney’s try.
Farrell’s presence also brings other less eye-catching aspect. When in trouble, Carbery could offload to Farrell in the knowledge that his centre would survive the defensive onslaught and gain time for the playmaker to reshape his attacking options. Italy defended well throughout but I was surprised how seldom their attack tested Ireland’s aggressive defensive line by sliding the ball through to turn the home side.
That said, a second-string Italian side gave us an insight into how to play against Ireland and Joe Schmidt’s systems appeared, as expected, a tad rusty. It was a little frustrating to watch but we’re up and running, out of the gym and meetings and thankfully back on the pitch.
There is plenty to work on, not least in terms of spatial awareness. Ireland had bucket loads of carries from players such as Rhys Ruddock, who offered ad nauseum, but didn’t always take the smart option. Take Jordi Murphy’s lineout maul try, a great team score, but the play preceding it saw Garry Ringrose and Carbery scything through the Italian defence only for Scannell to be pulled down short.
The next phase had Porter carrying around the edge, which makes sense so close to the line but the Italian weakness was wider out with a 5 v 2 overlap available. But with Porter’s carry the door closed and it required the lineout maul to score. In essence, the Irish attack consistently took that extra carry around the edge when there were holes wider out - holes a player like Carbery can exploit?