Always a shame when a quirk of the Laws creates a situation like this, but it is what it is and we have to maximise the advantage we take from it. Just need to keep things simple and the scores should come. Wouldnt hurt to rule out those offside penalties too. #IREvITA— Harpin' On Rugby (@HarpinOnRugby) February 27, 2022
Monday, February 28, 2022
Of COURSE we must harp on the quirky Law which meant the Italians had to cut an extra player. And of COURSE we must harp on the difficulties Ireland had in making hay while the rugby gods had the sun shining on us brighter than would have ever imagined.
But please, PLEASE can we get one thing perfectly clear before we discuss any of that.
"Player safety" has been said so often in recent years that it may be in danger of getting filed along with other well-worn rugby references and phrases like "Ireland get Italian job done" and "Van Der Flier seems to have worked on his carrying". But this is one that we cannot afford to become redundant.
Whatever we might think of the severity of these sanctions, they are there for a reason, and that reason is NOT to ruin our Sunday afternoon. Just. Get. Those. Tackles. Lower. If you ignore that, you put yourself in a situation where your team could be badly affected. And if the players at senior level start getting that message, it has to filter down to the children playing the sport making the game safer for everyone.
And if you think that's me "virtue signalling" or anything like that, well, I guess I really don't care. There's also the importance of consistency from officials and unfortunately there were two examples in this match that were treated differently.
OK, I think I've made my point; time to start looking at the 80 minutes. Obviously 57-6 was a final scoreline most Irish fans would have been more than happy with at kickoff time, and it sailed over the 40-point bar set by bookies and previewing bloggers alike.
But much of the discussion stems from the fact that when Andrew Porter's knock on shortly after the sending off of Epalahame Faiva forced referee Nika Amashukel to enforce the substitution Law, once you got past all the confusion the reality of the match was that Ireland was to have three full quarters of test rugby with two extra players against a team we were expecting to beat handsomely.
And later when the clock was heading towards 70 minutes, our lead had "only" been stretched to 30 so although the three late tries definitely helped, there were still a lot of questions in our minds which needed answers so the general sense of disappointment is understandable.
Rewatching the opening 5 minutes takes me back to a simpler time when test rugby was 15 v 15 and only those who had never watched a match before couldn't understand what was going on.
Well I say that, but even in that short spell we had to go to our bench as Garry Ringrose needed treatment for a cut which meant James Hume had to be introduced, but not surprisingly it didn't stop us from taking full advantage of our first big opportunity.
Monty Ioane had tried to beat our cordon of tacklers with a grubber through but it went straight into touch giving us a lineout in their half. While our maul inched infield our innovative scrum half Jamison Gibson-Park chose to take the ball up the blind side allowing Mack Hansen to get us on the front foot out wide.
From there it was a case of JGP showing why he has become the presumptive starter in this "Farrellball" squad, moving so quickly he's pretty much moving to the next breakdown before he's finished passing from the last one, and with strong support from his forwards, we worked our way to the 22 where an inside pass by Peter O'Mahony was perfectly times (and disguised) to allow Caelan Doris through a gap.
Next was the relatively easy bit as he has Sheehan and Carbery in support and it went quickly through the hands allowing our out half to defy a last gasp tackle to get it over the line. 5m gone, Ireland up 7-0, just what we needed to settle ourselves into the task, especially our 10 who was badly in need of game time.
So everything going to script so far and things got worse for the Azzurri when their hooker made a flailing attempt to tackle Doris on crash ball, landing awkwardly on his arm meaning he could take no further part, and of course little did we know that this was phase one of all the confusion.
But not unlike the Leinster game on Friday, an early score can make you complacent, or alternatively it can spur the opponents to up their defence, and I reckon the latter happened as our next few attacks struggled to get far beyond halfway. At one point JGP was forced to kick ahead and with Beirne forgetting to get onside before chasing, Padovani had a chance to pull 3 points back from near halfway which he took very well.
It was the Italian backrow that was getting success at the breakdown, with skipper Lamaro as well as no8 Halafihi getting in on the jackling, but when we were trying another time to find a gap, Dan Sheehan brought it into contact when faced by their reserve hooker Faiva.
We have to just ignore all the nonsense (even from Irish fans) that Sheehan was "dipping" into the tackle. If anything it may have only looked like that because rather than go low as you're supposed to, Faiva was actually rising towards his opposite hooker in the challenge and met him on the chin. Fair play to the Georgian referee for looking at it closely, and no matter who sees red I never like to see a gave affected like this, but it was still an easy call.
But of course that wasn't all the ref had to sort out. On the next play after the penalty, Doris got close to the line only for his offload to Porter which meant there had to be a scrum, and with no qualified hooker available, we not only had to go the "uncontested" route, the Italians had to lose another player.
I could waste three paragraphs explaining the reasons for the ruling here, or I could just link you to this excellent Twitter thread by "EK Rugby Analysis" for you to check out yourself in your own time.
The net result was that while Italy had the put in to the scrum, the opening quarter could not have ended worse for them, and though they did manage to clear their lines from the neutered set piece, it only went as far as James Lowe not far outside the 22.
Next there was one carry by Doris to set things up but the rest was all Lowe and JGP. The scrum half found his winger with the half inch of space he needed out wide, and when the man was beaten out there it was a simple pass back inside where JGP could canter over the line. Now it was 14-3 and there wouldn't be any arrogance in assuming a "point a minute" average could be achieve by the end.
Much like our early score, it did lead to more resolve from the Italian defence and despite the gap in numbers we still needed to get creative in finding ways around them. For this we chose the kick and with a penalty advantage already at halfway, Ringrose planted a beauty into the corner which was hunted down by Hansen forcing the Italians to bring it over their own line for a 5m scrum.
And even though this was uncontested, the fact it was also 5m from the touchline meant the limited Italian backline was stretched thin right across the pitch, giving us an overlap before the ball was even put in. So the try that followed had more of a training exercise look to it although Lowry on his first Six Nations start still finished well and will remember the moment no matter what the circumstances were.
Things were starting to get scrappy around midfield as the Italians did their best to use their line speed to slow us down and to be fair they weren't doing a bad job of it but when we kept going at them eventually we got it as far as the line which mean O'Mahony had to just fall over to clinch us the bonus point.
Carbery then missed his second conversion of the half and shortly before the whistle blew it was JGP's turn to be caught by the same offside call as Beirne had earlier, allowing Garbisi to knock over an easy three which I wasn't sure gave much consolstion.
There's a very good reason why I'm not a rugby coach myself, but still it really did look as though Ireland's task after the break was straightforward as my halftime tweet suggests. Yet for as many as ten minutes into the second half we still struggled to get anywhere, often taking the more complex option when it wasn't necessary.
And I also have to raise a question about Carbery. Obviously he still needs game time, but we can't use that excuse forever and especially given the quick thinking players we had at 9, 11, 14 and 15 on this day, plus the extra space involved, I really do think we needed better production from him overall and the multiple missed placekicks didn't help his cause much either.
Eventually we did make a breakthrough as having worked our way to just 5m from the line after a strong maul at halfway, JGP chucked a high miss pass right at James Lowe and once more all we had to do was fall over for the score.
Then came a substitution that really did seem cruel when you consider the way the Italians' day had gone, we only went and brought on Johnny Sexton. And it has to be said his introuduction made a difference since we came within one point of doubling our total in the final 27 minutes.
His impact was immediate as he helped Henshaw and O'Mahony force a choke tackle on Ioane in their half giving us a strong central position for an attacking scrum. From there it was a "good ol' fashioned wraparound move" which found the gap and a flat-ish pass inside from Sexton in the tackle went to Lowry who thought about offloading but instead took it himself for his second.
One thing you have to watch for when your opposition ships an early red card is that your own discipline doesn't give the officials an opportunity to even things up and in the 65th minute after a scrappy Italian lineout their sub Alessandro Fusco gathered up a loose ball and tried to get an attack going.
But he was met by Ryan Baird who didn't try to go low for a challenge any more than Faiva had done. Obviously we're talking about different sized players but the net result was the same, with contact being made to Fusco's chin so why the TMO didn't bring it to the ref's attention I'll never know but play was allowed to continue.
And as if Italy didn't need even more salt rubbed into their gaping wounds, it was Baird who finally broke down another spell of their dogged resistance as he blocked an attempted clearance from that very same Fusco and the ball sat well for the lock forward although it still had to be picked up which he did easily before dotting down for try number seven.
It wasn't just Sexton upping the tempo in the final quarter by the way...Craig Casey had come on for JGP and our speed from breakdown to breakdown didn't miss a beat, which makes me wonder if he should retain the 21 jersey for Twickenham. Eventually a strong series of carries and phases in their 22 forced Bram Steyn to deliberately bat the ball into touch leaving the ref no choice but to reduce their numbers to just 12.
We took the scrum option from the penalty and fair play to Lowry for sending it all the way through the hands when he could have taken it himself instead he let James Lowe get his own second. Sexton popped over a sweet conversion from the touchline with the clock reading 76:31 and the only question left was could we fit another in before the end.
And when yet another strong carry from van der Flier was held up, it left us with just one final chance from the goal line drop out and a one two punch of successive carries from Conan and Sexton got us close before Kieran Treadwell followed up nicely to get it over making the final score a lot more impressive than it could have been.
There's no doubt the Italians did well under increasingly impossible conditions but I have seen some Irish fans suggesting that one of them should have been named Player of the Match and to me that sounds absolutely absurd.
It had to be an Irishman and with his try and multiple strong carries van der Flier was a good shout although I might have gone for JGP. Overall it doesn't really matter though and while I understand that we probably expected a bigger margin given the match position at the 20 minute mark, the fact that the situation was so unusual meant allowances have to be made and we can only look ahead.
When it comes to winning the title, well the Scots didn't do us many favours against France but we did push ahead by a 3-score margin in the points difference column so all we can really do is focus on our own remaining matches, both of which are ones we should look for results from.
One final point, it's interesting to hear so much ridicule about the Laws of rugby coming from football fans on the same day a major trophy was decided because a goalkeeper had to take a penalty kick. Sport can be weird sometimes. Just sayin'.
Does our failure to flirt with a triple-digit score mean we should expect to have problems in Twickenham in two weeks? Absolutely not. Overall the squad is still in good nick, I presume Farrell will resort to more or less his best 23 where possible for it along with his original formula. One thing is for sure, whatever about our own display, there wasn't a whole lot for us to worry about from England's in Twickenham either.
So onwards we go and for the next couple of weeks I'll be using the podcast to get the opinions of fans from all four provinces on Ireland's Six Nations campaign to date, as well as featuring Leinster's away dates with both Benetton and Ulster in the URC. Do stay tuned. JLP
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