The Green Eye :: Italy (A)

The Italian Job can be a handy one, but it isn’t without risk.

You thought I’d pass up a chance to use the cliche of cliches when playing Italy? Think again.

Playing Italy in the Six Nations is, without being disrespectful to them, a high percentage win game for most of the other Six Nations sides whether it’s at home or in Rome. We can wish that Italy were better than they are or that they were better equipped to handle the rigours of this championship than to hope to catch the odd team on the hop in the Stadio Olimpico, but wishing won’t make it happen.

The fact is that most teams see their Six Nations Italian fixture every spring as a chance to try a few things out unless they find themselves in the position where anything less than a bonus point win puts somebody’s job under pressure. Joe Schmidt’s job isn’t under pressure (to put it mildly) and with the Slam gone and a World Cup on the horizon, this trip to the Eternal City means it’s time to try out a few new combinations, a few new faces and give a few of the top names with a bit too much rugby under their belts as of late a break from the rigours of test rugby. Ireland are in a position now where we can focus – just a little – on the not too distant future. Normally, the Six Nations is close to the be all and end all for Ireland’s international year when it comes to performance and results. A bad championship has usually done for most Irish coaches when they are to be done for and rightly so. November is nice, Summer is a lovely trip but you earn your money in the Spring. With one exception – the year after you win a Slam and the same year you look to challenge for the World Cup. Ireland can still win this Championship, and that will certainly be the aim going forward even with the chopping and changing that has happened this week, but the focus can drift a little to questions like “who will I start if [star guy] gets ruled out before the World Cup?”. Rome is where a selection of Irish players will make a case for why they should get a free seat on the plane to Japan and the time to help make that booking is this weekend.

Ireland’s rotation is Italy’s opportunity, though, and Conor O’Shea’s men will see a chance to catch us on the hop, as they almost did to Wales last time out before collapsing in the last quarter.

They won’t be the pushovers they ultimately were in Chicago last November but whatever Irish team takes the field should win, I think that’s fair enough to say without disrespecting Italy too much. The Italians, for all their faults and foibles, can play ball if you let them and O’Shea will back his selection to make hay off the Irish inaccuracies you’d imagine will be produced just by the fact that it’s what new combinations and fresh faces do – they make mistakes. That was true of the heavily rotated Irish squad in Chicago last year and it’ll be true here, too. Italy couldn’t take advantage then but will look to learn their lesson here.

Red Eye Report :: Italy (a)

I’ve decided to change this up slightly. I’ll be assessing specific facets of the opposition’s set piece, defensive structure and other stuff in the Blood & Thunder Podcast – and here – so here I thought it would be cool to show where I rate the opposition (and Ireland) as a whole in a World Rugby context as first choice units and then, depending on the how far away both Ireland and the opposition are from what I would consider “full strength”, how the teams actually taking the field rate against each other.

S – Elite level
A – Good World Level
B – Average World Level
C – Poor World Level

Guinness Six Nations 2019 Round 3 :: Italy vs Ireland

Full Strength Red Eye Rating: Italy (C) – Ireland (S)
Teamsheet Adjusted Red Eye Rating: Italy (C-) – Ireland (A-)
Current Six Nations Form Over Last 5 Games: Italy (LLLLL) – Ireland (WWWLW)

Navigating Warrior Street

There’s a walkway outside the Stadio Olimpico called Viale dei Gladiatore. Translated into English it means Way of the Gladiator, which is a bit of a dramatic considering how it looks but I think it’s a good way to describe how Italy are looking to do their business under Conor O’Shea. Physicality, aggression, athleticism. He’s getting there, game by game.

Results have been cat, to be fair, but to say that Italy haven’t improved in the last two years would be a dirty rotten lie. The only problem is, every other Six Nations side (bar maybe France) have improved too. Wales, Scotland, England and Ireland have been on fairly steep upward curves in both player production and performance. That’s reflected in the World Ranking standings of the Six Nations sides. Ireland (2), England (3) and Wales (4) are ranked above South Africa and Australia, while Scotland are currently seventh. France regularly play above (and below) their current ranking of 10th too.

Italy are ranked 15th in the world – below the likes of Japan, the US, Tonga and Georgia – but that’s a little distorted, especially when compared to every hipster’s favourite side that they’ve never seen play – Georgia. I like watching Georgia pack down with 8 identical 6’4″ men who’ve each had a full beard and thick, black hair on their backs since the age of 8 as much as the next guy, but let’s be real here; Georgia spend six months out of every year slapping around Tier 3 juggernauts like Belgium, Germany, Spain and Romania around the Six Nations B while Italy take on some of the world’s best sides.

As I’ve mentioned before, Italy are trying to build a game around the players they have today, not the players they had 20 years ago. Italy aren’t a side built around winning scrum penalties and mauling for days because they don’t have the players for it. Now they build their game on athletic ball carriers, pacey outside backs, two/three phase strike plays off the lineout and attacking on transition.

I’ve written about all of these before on previous Red Eyes, so have a look at the ones from February 2018 and November 2018 here. I don’t want to tread over old ground, so I thought I’d focus on something new.

In the last few weeks, I’ve noticed an odd defensive trend from the Italians when defending inside their own 22.

Italy have a few different structures that they use in different parts of the field. Most teams do, in fairness, and Italy are no different. At some point, every team flattens out their defensive line if they’re under enough pressure close to their goal line. Here’s Italy doing it against Wales.

This is where your second layer defenders step up into the primary defensive line and basically go 15 men up. Normally this happens in situations like the above image when you’re close to your own line.

Italy, though, tend to do it a lot further out than other sides.

When defending around the opposition’s 10m line, Italy will structure roughly like this.

Tebaldi will float around the ruck point, while Italy will keep a tight, narrow primary defensive line. #10 floats to a backfield position or an edge defensive position depending on whether it’s McKinley or Allen playing. Italy keep three players in the backfield with a good bit of separation between the wingers and the last defender on the openside. The idea here is that Italy will stop narrow carries up the middle with their aggressive, physical defenders and entice the opposition to box kick. If they do, Italy are set up to punish any poor kicks with aggressive, pacey runbacks from their aggressive, pacey wingers and full back. They are really good at hitting teams in transition and, with the likes of Morisi and Campagnaro essentially acting like half-wingers with their pace and strike running ability, Italy are lethal on kick transition.

When they are pressuring the opposition deep in the opposition’s half, they’ll sometimes play with 11 players in the primary defensive line and drop a back row into the backfield to give a heavy runback option off a box kick kept infield or on a quick lineout.

They’ll stay really deep too, to build up momentum on the transition.

That gives a team like Ireland a lot of space to target between their defensive layers but, consequently, make box kicking that much riskier if you don’t retain possession or set a defensive reset point.

Italy are a little vulnerable to a big hitter on their defensive outside edge when they’re defending around the opposition 10m line. They haven’t really faced that so far but they will against Ireland and Chris Farrell.

Something like this, with Sexton feeding Aki for a hinge onto Farrell into Campagnaro or Morisi on the edge could really work. We’d need a carrier like O’Brien to pinch in their B/C defenders but for Sexton to hit it relatively wide to Aki. With Farrell hitting that channel hard and getting gainline – O’Mahony coming in and securing the ruck – we’d have a bit of space to work with as Italy’s backfield rush up to take a position and their back five work across the ruck point.

That’s from further out but the real issue is when they’re defending on their own 22.

Flatten Out

What do you notice about this defensive set?

Look at the between the primary defensive line and the posts! Look at the winger drifting in the backfield out to the wing in the second layer.

The fullback – Jason Hayward – is defending in the second layer on the other wing. You can see him stepping into the line here.

That means that Italy’s defence in the 22 looked like this;

Thirteen up in the primary line in theory, but in reality, it’s 14 up with one second layer defender floating in the backfield. Italy do this to make sure every carry is met with multiple clustered defenders and a pressurised ruck.

The #10 – Tommasso Allen – can float back into the second layer when the ball is over on the opposite flank but for the most part, he defends in the line. The obvious space is in behind the primary line which you can get at with a chip over the top of their middle of the field defenders.

It’ll have to be disguised by Aki/Farrell/Furlong running a tight pod to interest their heavy defenders, but with the right kind of animation we can get Stockdale or Earls lurking to burst through the line and either take the ball and score, or scrag the chasing defender over the line for a 5m scrum or a poor exit.

Italy know this risk is there, but they figure it’s a risk worth taking. Further out in their own half, they defend more conventionally. Hayward is taking up a fairly standard fullback position here.

Look at that hinge outside “C” on phase 8. Tight five forward cardio already a worry only 16 minutes in.

He’s defending outside the opposite #10’s running channel as the ball comes across the field, which is normally quite an aggressive defensive approach for a fullback but you look at his depth here and you realise he’s covering the kick over the top to ensure the opposition take contact with Italy’s aggressive primary line. Allen is covering the blindside of the backfield off camera.

Once the ball hits centre-field, you see where space presents itself;

Biggar kicks through on a penalty advantage and goes for the space between the primary and secondary defensive lines.

That’s good but I think attacking the diagonal space would be better here.

You’d need your wingers in a flatter, more aggressive chasing position but a nicely weighted kick here could really pressure Hayward’s positioning if he’s under chased his line. Earls and Stockdale would chase these kicks aggressively and they don’t even have to score – just pressure and scrag. If Ireland get good lineout position from those pressured kicks or even get O’Mahony into their defensive lineouts, we’ll generate the opportunities we need.

If we kick poorly, Italy can hurt us but if we kick with purpose and mix it with dominant colisions up the middle of the pitch to set their defensive line and draw up their wings, we can really, really hurt Italy with nicely angled kicks but only when they fear our carrying game.

Italy will look to play a narrow punch carrying game to retain possession and look for a break to speed up the tempo and get their pacey backs into the game.

Ultimately though, Italy are still a 65-minute team at this level. They have certainly improved from where they were a few years ago from a skill, structure and fitness perspective but they aren’t catching up with the leaders quickly enough. They are making gains in the PRO14 but test level is a different beast entirely. If Ireland are rusty, disjointed and losing come the 50th minute, they will know that the Italian gas tank will give a way out if we need it.

That has been, and will be, the biggest Italian flaw. They have the passion, they have some good players and a good set piece (lineout in particular) but their collective fitness lets them down, especially in the pack. When your replacements aren’t quite where they need to be, quality wise, that makes closing out any game a tall order at this level.

Hopefully, Ireland won’t need that gas tank bailout, but at least we know it’s there. That said, I’d expect Ireland to win this by 15+ points and move on to France with some points proven and fresh questions for Schmidt to consider.