No pressure, Andy! Your task in taking over the Irish job is only to follow a coach who may not have reached the Holy Grail of a RWC semifinal but still shattered pretty much every other ceiling left for him by his own predecessors. Oh, and if you wouldn’t mind just re-inventing a whole new style of play as well, that’d be grand…
And just to finish off the challenge nicely, what say we let you get three games into your first Six Nations before making you wait about seven months to resume - all you have to do then is get maximum points from two matches with no warmups, including a trip to Paris against a French team that’s a good one this year. Not a bother to ya man!! Quite the task when you spell it all out like that isn’t it?
Normally as I watch my team play under a new coach like this I spend my time looking for that new style, but when I watched this match first, all I could think of was the bonus point win. I guess you could put that down to 2020 being the way it is and I just wanted something super positive to cheer me up!
But when I watched it the second time, free from the shackles of not knowing how it would turn out, I saw something different altogether. There was after all a definite pattern to the way we were approaching the game, definitely a departure from the Schmidt era, and remember, that’s not to denigrate Joe in any way, it was just time had moved on and we needed something new.
Central to the new order was always going to be the scrum half, and much has been said about how Conor Murray only did the two box kicks throughout the match. This is true, but it was never going to be enough that he just cut that aspect out of his game. We needed to replace it with something which had to be an improvement. And it was, for the most part.
Don’t worry I’ll get to the actual match eventually, but I want to make some overall points first. We may have nixed the straight up in the air kicking for now, but that doesn’t mean we’ve stopped putting boot to ball altogether. We clearly had licence to put the ball into space when we saw it, and between Sexton, Murray, Ringrose and Stockdale, we had decent footballers who were able to do that effectively.
OK I’ve said the name Stockdale so I may as well deal with him here, as he’s another hot topic of varied opinion these days. From a technical standpoint, I don’t think he had a good game as full back on Saturday. There were positional issues, he completely fluffed a routine clearance from his own 22 that was lucky to bounce before the touchline, and while there were positives, the fact that his supposed defensive frailties weren’t really tested makes me anxious about what might happen in Paris next week.
All of that said, I can still see why the decision seems to have been made to try him out there in the first place. I’m working on the (purely hot take) theory that this was a plan going back to the COVID break, and that he was returned to full back at Ulster in preparation. That definitely made sense, particularly when you realise his handy left boot which is one of many strings we lost from our bow with Rob Kearney’s test retirement.
Thing is though, there’s another quality left boot about to qualify for Ireland, one that will bring a lot of other qualities to our back three. And what’s more, we’ve a winger who just showed on his debut he belongs at test level that could easily move to full-back. But that’s all down the line I guess...does my criticism mean I reckon Jacob should be dropped altogether for Paris? Ugh. Come back to me after I harp on the actual 80 minutes, will ya?
It certainly wasn’t a great start for Jacob, nor Ireland, as his attempt to keep the ball in play from their exit clearance after kickoff gave them good possession at halfway and shortly afterwards, a pass to their number 8 Jake Polledri that was just behind him meant he could grab it in such a way as to blow by his opposite number CJ Stander - within seconds Italy were defying the script from my preview by attacking our line.
Conor Murray was heroic in hauling his down his own opposite number Marcello Violi 5m out yet despite the best efforts of Alan Quinlan in the Virgin Media commentary box to exonerate him, I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t fully back referee Matthew Carley (who I thought was excellent throughout) in awarding a yellow card. There was no release after the tackle, and whatever the time on the clock, I've often said penalties shipped in that exact scenario are one of the reasons why we have the sin bin in the first place.
So there we were, 3-0 down after a few minutes with a possible question mark over our defence, one we would go on to erase for almost the entire match. We also had an immediate problem to solve in that the word to the wise in rugby circles is that the 9 is hardest to replace for 10 minutes, unless of course you have arguably the most well rounded footballer in test rugby on the pitch at that moment.
Just a couple of weeks ago we saw Garry Ringrose effortlessly kicking a conversion from the touchline for Leinster when required - now we needed him to get quickly to breakdowns and be accurate with passes for ten whole minutes. Well, after Rob Herring, Tadhg Beirne and Bundee Aki provided the pressure after the restart to force a choke tackle, our starting outside centre did just that.
There really didn’t seem to be much lost from our game (and remember, were were a man down) as we ticked our way through the phases courtesy of relentless pressure until CJ Stander got the ball down over the Italian line and settled the nerves of all the Irish fans watching at home.
Eventually Ringrose proved he’s at least a bit mortal when a pass went astray but still we managed another 3 points without Murray, and what’s more, we clearly patched the hole in our defensive line. If you told me afterwards we achieved a rake of jackled penalties I’d have presumed CJ Stander was responsible for them, but Herring, Porter & Connors were also in on the act.
For the next while we were struggling a bit to get the second try, mostly from our own doing when attacking lineouts went wrong and poor Ringrose was unfortunate to catch the knee of Edoardo Padovani, who was in the act of kicking as far as possible I might add, full in the jaw meaning the early introduction of Robbie Henshaw.
But Garry’s Leinster team-mate quickly proved his worth to the Irish set-up when a long looping pass following a sweeping play through the backs fell to debutant Hugo Keenan (NOT Keegan as many keep saying on the social meeja - get it right folks!!!! You’ll be using this surname a lot I reckon!!!) and his rise and rise in recent times continued as he completed his task out wide to perfection despite the attention of multiple defenders around him.
Just a couple of minutes later he thought he had his second, and just as importantly Stockdale thought he had his YouTube moment breaking from deep and setting him us as we know he can, but the TMO spotted a “block” from James Ryan providing the space and called it all back.
Was it a block? Meh - probably to the letter of the law it was, but I don’t agree with the officials in how they used his raised arm as evidence. I think Marco Lazzaroni’s collision with Ryan is what forced the arm out and I’m not 100% sure he would have gotten to Stockdale anyway. But the Leinster lock’s body language wasn’t the best I suppose.
Anyway, we needed to get back down the other end asap and after they pounded our defence with 17 phases in our 22, Caelan Doris ripped it free, managed to retrieve and charge out of our 22 before shipping it to Murray, who showed he’s not all about box kicking thanks to a perfectly weighted grubber ahead that sat up for Keenan and NOW he could get his second ever test try.
For the second conversion in a row, Sexton made the touchline kick for the posts look very easy and just like that we were one away from the bonus point with a handy 21-point margin as well.
I won’t lie - I was starting to get anxious about our ability to get that fourth try as the clock reached the high 50s. And it wasn’t even the try the Italians scored in that time that made me feel that way. This was a good read by Padovani on a Sexton pass to Henshaw which they ran back for an easy 7 points. Not ideal of course, but not a stain on our defence either.
The problem was that although our play without the ball was impressive, especially during this patch, we were doing too much of it and in our own half to boot. We just needed that one more five pointer and it needed to be soon if we could possibly pad the margin further afterwards.
Eventually we pinched a lineout at halfway and Sexton was able to straighten his line and break into opposition territory before a couple of quick penalties gave us a lineout close to their line. From here it was pretty much a routine lineout - I reckon sub hooker Dave Heffernan was meant to take it at the back of the maul but instead it ended up with another debutant Will Connors, who may not score tries too often but in this scenario going low to get the ball down was no bother do him. Phew!!!
What’s that? There was a suggestion it wasn’t actually grounded??? Shush - someone might hear you!!!
Now the pressure was off, but like I said, we couldn’t let up from there, and the try of the match was to come. Stockdale took a decent catch on the run in his own half, and when he offloaded to Ed Byrne, the prop did incredibly well recycling while keeping the ball in play despite being only minutes into his own first test cap.
From there I didn’t check closely but I dare say between clearouts and blocking runs all 15 boys in green were involved in the move that followed, including significant gains by Keenan, Stander and Doris, before Murray provided the final ball to Sexton to finish off try number 5.
Now we had yet another Leinster man taking his international bow as Jamison Gibson-Park stepped in for Murray, and when Sexton got on the end of his cheeky little exit kick after the restart, it looked like we could well see a lot more of him. Our attack was flowing really well for those last dozen or so minutes.
Eventually we got try number 6 courtesy of Bundee Aki and while everyone is rightly raving about the amazing offload from Peter O’Mahony that put him through, I’m not sure enough has been said about the rip from the breakdown by Will Connors that gave us that chance in the first place. To be fair though, Will did go on to deservedly get player of the match but that was probably more for the try and fifty million daisy-cutter tackles, so I thought I’d mention this steal. Awesome offload from POM as well of course!
Overall, we deserve credit for playing right to the end. A brilliant touchfinder off a penalty from Ross Byrne put us 5m out and this time Heffernan was able to get it over the line to cap his own debut with a try. And while Byrne has taken some stick for rushing his conversion to ensure another play, I myself would have been annoyed if he killed the match there, especially as the Italians seemed tired and exiting was one of our many strengths on the day.
In the end, O’Mahony was unable to gather the restart and credit to the Italians, they could have also killed the match yet it was their own rookie Paolo Garbisi (first player not alive in a year beginning with 19 to play in Six Nations apparently, how depressing is that) who got over the line and haul our winning margin back by 7. Was there a block in the buildup similar to that by Ryan earlier? Perhaps, but I guess we have to let it go.
So there we have it. 50-17 is a final score I would have easily taken at kickoff. Although that late try does bring back memories from Rome 2007 (scoreline not far off either), and what’s more our chances of winning the title will also be decided in Paris, there is one important difference - this time we get to decide our own fate.
Now I have to go back to my earlier question - what of Stockdale? Well for the sake of this particular tournament, I reckon our changes from this week to next need to be minimal. Like I said, I don’t think he did great with a bright spotlight on him but we also have to remember the quality he can bring and I reckon he can definitely find it so better to leave him sort it out without risking a major change.
Obviously Ringrose will need to be replaced but for the most part I reckon the 23 should be kept the same and whatever score the English rack up against Italy, and whatever about the French continuing their form shown earlier in the year, I want to see us go out there with a mind to getting the four tries from the kickoff.
We have a set of matches before 2020 is up to use for experiment. For now, Andy has his plan and I for one would like him to see it through. There were definitely issues from Saturday’s 80 minutes, but nothing that can’t be readily fixed in a week. Roll on next Saturday evening, I say. JLP