|photo : Tommy Dickson (Inpho)|
The sequence leading to the try was bizarre.
First we almost pinch an attacking Italian lineout but we knock it on. Then that scrum becomes a free kick, for which they take another scrum. Then we win a penalty and clear to touch at halfway. Next comes an Irish lineout followed by a maul which loses its GPS connection and veers into touch.
Now it's Italy’s turn for a dart, after which they proceed through 9 phases which are going nowhere until Will Connors and Iain Henderson combine to force a penalty for holding on and it's set back to touch yet again. Back and forth the possession goes - a situation screaming for one side to click into gear.
So Tadhg Beirne hauls down the catch and this time the maul starts heading in a more central direction before Jamison Gibson Park spots an opportunity to snipe on the blind side. Johnny Sexton and winger Jordan Larmour see what he’s doing and provide perfect support as they combine to get the latter into the Italian 22 - he knows exactly when to lay the ball back to his teammates.
From there it’s Gibson Park to….Sexton? No. As the veteran 10 sizes up the situation, it only gets to him via James Ryan who times his link play perfectly. Running against the grain Sexton sends it to Garry Ringrose. Meanwhile, Hugo Keenan springs into action and his line is so spot on that when his 13 is tackled, his diving offload reaches the full back at just the right moment for him to be able to continue accelerating all the way to the line.
You could say “ah, sure it was always Italy” and embark on the gagillionth debate over whether or not they should remain in the Six Nations. Or, you could argue that this was an extremely well worked try by an Irish starting XV that really looked like they wanted to prove they could get some business done on the attacking front.
“So with a decent attack plan, good execution, solid set-pieces and D, rugby gods smiling….with all due respect to our hosts, I reckon we should expect a margin of 25 or more from all of that. Now lads, there’s your challenge - go out and show all the doubters you can do it.”
Like I said in my preview, there was absolutely no scoreline in Rome that would appease the many doubters, and just to be clear, I’m not saying some of those doubts are unfounded - how could they be after two defeats. But with a two-week gap since the French loss and another one coming ahead of our next assignment against the Scots, we only had this particular 80 minutes to watch the boys in green chasing eggs so what else can I do in this writeup but highlight the many positives that came from the match.
All I wanted was a sign that the group wanted to work together and we most certainly saw that. Intricate passing formations were paying off. Offloads were happening. Runs at the gainline were breaking through. Even our box kicks were producing results in that first half thanks to decent hangtime and good chasing.
Plus, on top of our six tries, there were many that could have been, and one that definitely should have been had Henderson’s dot down been examined in the traditional fashion of watching the replay with the game stopped.
But none of that should distract us from pointing out that this was a good Irish display. What say we enjoy it and worry about how the overall campaign is looking when the trip to Murrayfield draws near.
I wasn’t even worried when Garbisi kicked our hosts into an early 3-0 lead. Like I said in my last Leinster writeup, this often happens these days and you can’t really judge how things are going to go until both sides have had some time with the ball. And sure enough we had them level again moments later, thanks to referee Mathieu Reynal pinging runners ahead of their exit kicker.
And while we could have found the Henderson non-call immensely frustrating as we had yet to cross their line and given all that has happened in this campaign, instead we kept the pressure on and it wasn’t long before we were winning another penalty in their 22 after a great run by James Lowe.
Two more penalty advantages were in our back pocket during the next sequence as forward after forward was illegally thwarted in getting it over, so eventually Gibson Park sent it out to the backs and Garry Ringrose was able to straighten his run and get the ball down.
We kept things going and forced more penalties - once Sexton was probably wise to take the easy three to push the lead to ten but as the game ticked into the second quarter it was pretty clear we had the better of the opposition D which meant there were seven points a-begging pretty much every time we had the ball in their 22.
Sure enough just a couple of minutes after that Keenan score, CJ Stander won a jackled penalty in midfield (although judging by his face afterwards it may have been awarded more by reputation than technical success in this case) which gave us another lineout around their 22.
This score needed even more clever offloads and exchanges and after around six phases Will Connors was the extra man out wide as he bagged his second test try. All of a sudden the scoreline was a whopping 27-3 and a wider margin seemed likely.
But just before the break, some fine pressure from the Irish defence on a maul deep in our own 22 wasn’t enough to prevent Garbisi, who definitely looks like he’ll grow into a fine test 10 if given the chance and unlucky to be deprived his equally promising halfback partner Varney just before kickoff, managed to get between two tacklers and offload to Johan Meyer and suddenly the Italians were in double figures.
This took the shine off the first half somewhat, yet in other ways it might have been just the focus Sexton & the boys needed at the break because no sooner had the match resumed than we won another penalty which put us back throwing a dart 5m from their line.
Rónan Kelleher threw a couple of crooked ones on the day but those that really, really mattered like this one found their mark and after another Gibson-Park snipe plus a few rumbling phases around the line, eventually it was Stander getting it over and hey presto there’s our bonus point.
From here it could be said we took our feet off the pedal a shade. Italy tried to come back at us and you could see how they were trying to get players like Monty Ioane into it but when they weren’t shooting themselves in the foot, our back row of Beirne, Connors and Stander were fulfilling their job description.
Another trio that was operating well was our starting front row of Kilcoyne, Kelleher and Furlong. The Munster loose head, a long time favourite of mine (when he’s wearing green of course) is always up for making the most of opportunities to get game time and I reckon on this occasion he put a lot of doubt into the heads of those suggesting Andrew Porter should be “switching sides”.
With substitutions starting to happen we took our time to refocus and I must say it was nice of our hosts to help us along by getting their own players sent to the naughty step. First to go was sub prop Giosue Zilocchi who clearly played the ball while off his feet when we were well on to the front foot. From the resulting penalty it looked like Stander got his second but there was a knock on from Kelleher in the build up.
Next it was the Azzurri hooker and captain Luka Bigi heading for the bin and against 13 men a try was kind of inevitable; it was that man Will Connors who got it by breaking off a dominant maul at exactly the right time.
On the subject of Connors, he is one of two points I’d like to make about this match where I have to choose my words very carefully because in both cases I’m going to look like my “Leinster over Munster goggles” are showing. The first one is that I reckon Connors should have been Player of the Match ahead of Beirne, and I don’t feel so badly about that one as Tadhg said it himself!!!
The second has to do with Craig Casey. I agree with the general opinion that his test debut was long overdue, and I also agree that he did extremely well once he was on, being very unlucky not to get his first assist as a final pass to Lowe was a shade forward.
What I want to say about his performance is that while I agree it was impressive, there’s so much harping on it around the Irish ruggersphere that I’m afraid it will take away from what I thought was a decent shift from Gibson-Park.
Previously I was afraid his game was caught between a rock and a hard place in the Ireland setup, in that he was expected to box kick more often than not which takes from his better instincts in other areas. On this day I thought he actually managed a near perfect blend of the two, kicking mostly effectively especially early on when we needed to establish a lead and still managing penetrating runs which were also producing results.
To summarize, while I might have had them in opposite order starting-wise to begin with, I thought both scrums-half had really good outings and when Murray returns, Andy will have a whole lot of headaches even without the wealth of 9 talent that’s not currently with the squad.
But the scoring wasn’t done quite yet. Ryan Baird and Jack Conan also had stand out cameos as we pushed for an “icing on the cake” score while still keeping out the Italians from adding to their halftime total.
Eventually that came right at the very end when Casey took a penalty quickly, Conan carried it near to the line and that final bit of required magic was provided by Sexton who fizzed it out wide to a grateful Keith Earls to apply the finishing touch down.
In a way it was fitting that Sexton ended the match with a fantastic conversion from the touchline. I actually saw some complaints on Twitter from Irish “fans” that he had completed a full 80 minutes!!! Hilarious when usually the complaint is that he’s no longer able to play that long!!! Whether or not this complete game was scheduled we’ll never know as Billy Burns came on for Henshaw towards the end and hopefully the full 23 made it through the match ok.
On the refereeing side I really don’t want to add too much to all the flack being copped by French officials this weekend because there has been a lot of it. I admit I was scratching my head at some of Mathieu Reynal’s decisions during the match (especially the Henderson try that wasn’t) but taking a broad view it did seem he was looking for certain infractions like blocking before a maul is set up from a lineout and not waiting for your team mate passing you after kicking, and to be fair, he did apply the law to both sides in those cases.
So there we had it. Six tries, a decent amount of offloads, 48 points, maximum five match points, a well-padded points difference. If you can’t see the confidence which the lads can take from all of that then I’m afraid I can’t help you. When we get closer to the next match we can look at all the hurdles Stuart Hogg & co will put before us but for now I shall be mostly enjoying this win. JLP