Six Nations: Time for Ireland to deliver in style against Italy
Return of Sexton and Ryan should help ensure a more clinical attacking display
Craig Casey during Ireland’s captain’s run at the Stadio Olimpico, Rome. Casey is one of two uncapped 21-year-olds on the bench, the other being Ryan Baird. Photograph: Ryan Bailey/Inpho/Irfu
Ireland’s biennial trek to the Eternal City finds them desperately seeking a confidence-restoring win, but also the cutting edge that has been absent in their two games to date.
Hopes of both have been heightened by the talk coming from the camp this past week, and also the return of some key men in a selection which points to more of a ball-carrying game designed to win the gain line and then find those edges.
For all the ageist, ongoing speculation about his longer-term future, the return of the team’s guiding hand and captain, Johnny Sexton, should ensure an altogether more coherent and assured performance, not least from an all-Leinster backline. As the only first-choice goalkicker in the match-day squad and no Conor Murray, Ireland need him to stay healthy too.
James Ryan’s unrelenting accuracy in all he does should elevate standards too, while the revamped front row is replete with ball carriers as well as the exceptional handling abilities of Tadhg Furlong, which could add some variation from the pods playing off Jamison Gibson-Park.
Then again, as much as Ireland have targeted this game, to too must the Italians who, after all, are eyeing up fellow two-time losers on home soil.
Franco Smith has picked an unchanged side, which does reflect the underappreciated progress they’ve shown in their two games, especially in their attacking game.
The 19-year-old scrumhalf Stephen Varney and 20-year-old outhalf Paolo Garbisi are both the present and the future. Varney has taken to Test rugby with all the innate cockiness that somehow seems the exclusive preserve of scrumhalves.
His match-up with Gibson-Park will be intriguing, for they both have a nippy little sniping game around the fringes based on footwork, offloading and sleight of hand. Garbisi, who scored a try on his debut against Ireland in the Aviva Stadium last October, also looks physically as well as mentally beyond his years, and while fond of an inside pass to support runners coming onto the ball at pace, generally times his show-and-go to maximum effect.
They’ve been afforded freedom to play too, and whereas Ireland (after 20 wins in 21 Six Nations matches between the two countries) are in no-win territory again, these Azzurri are in, to some degree, a no-lose scenario given they have suffered 29 Six Nations defeats in succession.
Word is that Joe Schmidt freely admitted to borrowing from Smith’s attacking game when he was in charge of Benetton and the Azzurri have caught the eye with their ability to find the edges, transition to attack off turnovers and exploit advantages.
They’ve been more adventurous than Ireland, scored more tries, offloaded more and made more line breaks, and they’ve the capacity to embarrass Ireland. Montanna Ioane and the 20-year-old fullback Jacopo Trulla look like real finds.
But their skill set hasn’t always matched their ambition, and handling errors have led to turnovers tries in both their games to date. Furthermore, the Azzurri have been way more porous, conceding 91 points and 31 tries while missing a whopping 59 tackles in their two games.
Aside from the penchant for missing tackles, the Italians have also offered scope for counterattacks. The Azzurri have kicked the least (44 times) but their exit strategy to date of Garbisi hoofing the ball down the middle of the pitch led to England scoring a two-phase try off a counterattack from their own half and France scoring a two-man counterattacking try.
Ireland have surely prepared accordingly.
This is actually quite an exciting-looking Irish team. Sure, with three 20-year-olds and a 19-year-old in their ‘23’, the average age of Italy’s match-day squad is 25.3, compared to Ireland’s 27.8. But as with Italy, Ireland have five players aged 24 or under in their starting XV, as well as five with caps in single figures. They also have two uncapped 21-year-olds on the bench in Ryan Baird and Craig Casey.
A year on from his Test debut in that edgy win over Scotland, Ronan Kelleher’s Six Nations debut finally comes to pass. Even though still only 23, it doesn’t feel a moment too late. He looks and plays like a Test match animal,
There’s been little wrong with Ireland’s foundations, be it scrum, lineout and ruck which, as Andy Farrell highlighted even in the immediate aftermath of the defeat by France, ensured plenty of possession, but the running game has been too static, too lateral and lacked variety, especially against France.
But with the array of dynamic ball-carriers and the continuing accuracy at the breakdown, there should be enough quick ball for Sexton to bring his backs into play. Ireland will need to be patient and composed, but we need to see more straight running and more of Garry Ringrose on the ball.
Having devised a wet weather game plan against France, Ireland have kicked more from hand (76 times) in their two games to date than any other side. But the forecast looks like being perfect for running rugby ( if there have been hints of springtime in the Irish air, it’s even truer in the Italian capital) with temperatures set to reach 18C degrees on a largely sunny afternoon.
No excuses then Ireland, and now back to something more like full strength, there really shouldn’t be.
Things need to click now, for all concerned, and unless they get some blows to the solar plexus early on, everything is in place for it to happen.
Ireland: Hugo Keenan; Jordan Larmour, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, James Lowe; Johnny Sexton (capt), Jamison Gibson-Park; David Kilcoyne, Rónan Kelleher, Tadhg Furlong; Iain Henderson, James Ryan; Tadhg Beirne, Will Connors, CJ Stander. Replacements: Rob Herring, Cian Healy, Andrew Porter, Ryan Baird, Jack Conan, Craig Casey, Billy Burns, Keith Earls.
Italy: J Trulla; L Sperandio, J Ignacio Brex, C Canna, M Ioane; P Garbisi, S Varney; A Lovotti, L Bigi (capt), M Riccioni; M Lazzaroni, D Sisi; S Negri, J Meyer, M Lamaro. Replacements: G Lucchesi, C Traore, G Zilocchi, N Cannone, M Mbanda, C Braley, F Mori, Mattia Bellini.