Or so we’re being lead to believe. A disaster where Ireland picked up five points without playing particularly fluently or coherently for long stretches against a side that is being built to take advantage of the mistakes that a team playing without fluency or coherency makes. Watching Virgin Media One after the game would make you think the scoreline was reversed, such was the carping and moaning seeping out of Matt Williams, Shane Horgan and Shane Jennings at fulltime.
In some ways, I get it. You had three pretty emotional fellas dragging each other down like reverse hype men until World Cup 2007 was dragged up as metaphorical equivalent to what we saw in Rome. Not to prematurely age you or anything, but World Cup 2007 was 11 years ago and most of the current Irish squad were still living with their parents at the time. James Ryan, for example, was 11.
Shane Jennings then began to splutter about how abysmal Italy were and are – they weren’t and aren’t, just FYI – and how bad a job Conor O’Shea is doing. In a way, Jennings painted himself into a corner because he wanted to amplify how poor Ireland were but couldn’t articulate it in any other way except to trash the opposition. Essentially, it wasn’t enough that Ireland were poor (and they were) but Italy had to be just as poor, if not worse, because if we’re struggling to beat these clowns, then what are we at? The natural extension of that was to double down and directly criticise the job that Conor O’Shea is doing in Italy for the last two years, which is particularly fucking stupid. If you knew anything about the work that he’s doing in Italy from everything from the TOP12 domestic championship, to their u20 development pathways, right on up through the PRO14 teams, while also trying to find and develop Test players while playing the (relatively speaking when you consider the world rankings of Italy’s regular opposition) most difficult schedule in test rugby, you’d be praising O’Shea from the rooftops for the work he’s doing, and successes he’s achieving below the level of results at test rugby. O’Shea took over Italy when they were at a lower ebb than Ireland in the 90s with fewer players, fewer clubs, fewer pathways for younger players and no real professional outlet for the game in their country.
Like, if Conor O’Shea continues the work he’s doing at the rate that he’s at already, there’ll be a statue of him outside the FIR office in the Stadio Olimpico in 10 years time. So to say he’s doing “a bad job” is lazy, completely ignorant of the job he’s actually doing, and something for the flustered ex-pros to maybe re-consider when they’ve regained their composure.
But I suppose the real question has to be What’s Going On With Ireland?
In this game, there are a few explanations for Ireland’s disjointed performance, so I’ll go through those now as best I can.
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.
Italy are a team that have been learning to play off opposition errors and kickaways. They have pacey backs, a mobile enough backrow and halfbacks that have a decent to good running game depending on form. Both of Italy’s tries were scored off the back of Irish errors.
The first came from a botched Irish lineout – a common enough theme in the first half. I’ll look at that in a minute but first, we’ll have a look at the two spilt lineouts before the one that lead to the try.
This is an overthrow from Cronin here, I think. Furlong’s lifting route and Roux’s step-out look to be well-timed, but O’Mahony can see the ball is too high early enough. It’s not always on the hooker but this one is, I think.
When we look at the next one, we can see more of what was going for Sean Cronin and the Irish lineout.
Italy were throwing a jumper into the air at the front of the lineout and contesting at the back. On the audio, you can hear the Italian lineout shouting “SI” as Cronin flicks the ball before the throw.
That gives Italy the hair trigger that they need to contest in two areas – at the front and at the tail. Italy got a strong contest on Roux to steal the ball. Remember this lineout scheme, though, because the one Italy scored from had similar traits.
Ireland were looking for a similar ball – to Roux at the tail – and Italy attacked it in the same way. Front pod jumped on Cronin’s trigger to pressure the throw and the same back pod attacked Roux.
This looks like another overthrow from Cronin, who Italy looked to have done a fair bit of video work on individually.
Once Italy had an overthrow, they went straight onto the attack and scored a few phases later as they caught Ireland in transition off this full lineout.
We shouldn’t down the impact of Hayward on the outside edge – a great run that hammered home their advantage – but this one shouldn’t have happened. How did it happen? A lot of new jumping and lifting combinations play their part too, even though some would try to downplay that factor. We had five new guys in the pack and if even one or two is half a second off, you’ll get found out at test level, especially against a decent lineout side like Italy. Throw in good counter-jumping from Italy to pressure Cronin’s throwing and you have a recipe for the three lineouts lost in the first half and one of those leading to an Italian score.
The second try was conceded in the aftermath of Tebaldi steal on Murray at the breakdown. I think Murray was complaining about Tebaldi being offside, rather than hitting him before he’d lifted the ball but either way, it was scrappy from Ireland.
We mauled really well right before this – we mauled well all day, actually – but the break from the maul found an isolated Jacob Stockdale. Farrell’s clean out had to come in at a poor angle, so he didn’t remove the Italian scrumhalf from the scenario and Murray got caught cold.
The Italians surged up the field in transition and scored a few phases later.
Ireland, all of a sudden, were camping in Shit Valley with a boat ride up Shit Creek coming up. It was 16-12 to Italy at half time and Ireland looked pretty directionless.
Well, losing Aki inside 10 minutes certainly didn’t help. Bundee has the most amount of interactions with the ball of any Irish player outside of Murray over the first two rounds of the Championship, so losing him early on forced a fairly dramatic reshuffle of how Ireland were looking to play. Earls moved to 13, Farrell to 12 and Conway to the wing. Ireland had changed how they structured their phase play in the build-up to this game too, which compounded the issues. With Stander, Conan, Leavy, Ryan and Healy out for this game through a mixture of injury and rotation, Ireland had to alter our usual Blunt Force Trauma phase play to accommodate the players we had fit and available. If you look at our pack, only Kilcoyne, Furlong and O’Brien would be noted ball carriers at test level and of those three, only Kilcoyne and Furlong produced here. Murphy, Cronin, O’Mahony and Dillane are better carrying the ball in the wider areas, with Dillane the closest suited to hitting the ball hard in the “strike zone” in the manner of Ryan or Henderson. Furlong, O’Brien and Kilcoyne can carry in a variety of locations but are mainly suited to hit ups in the Hammer or Strike zones of the field.
That meant that we were playing a wider style game that would have required more ball carrying from both of our midfielders. Farrell carried 14 times in total, and Aki carried 4 times inside his 10 minutes. Furlong, O’Brien and Kilcoyne were our strongest ball carriers in the pack with 34 carries and 61 metres gained between the three of them.
Losing Aki meant that Ireland were lopsided when it came to carrying the ball and made it easier for Italy to pressure our phase play because of a reduction of threats carrying for Ireland in the middle of the field. There’s also the disruption of losing your second receiver and how that then ups the pressure on Sexton as a playmaker and a target.
Ireland usually like to play with multiple heavy ball-carrying options to create the kind of phase pressure that not many teams can live with when done at its best. Having the likes of Stander, Leavy, Henderson, Ryan, Healy and Furlong stacked in multiple carrying positions makes easier decisions for Sexton and Murray. Against Italy, we didn’t have those and had to play with more width and “hands” than we normally would.
As the second half wore on, Italy began to tire and, after 9 phases of close-range pressure, Ireland found Keith Earls coming against the grain to isolate some tired forwards for a crucial try – something I discussed in pre-game as being likely.
From there, Ireland were bonus point hunting and wrapped the game up through Conor Murray in the 66th minute. The five points were in the bag but there wasn’t much worth celebrating from an Irish perspective.
We just played with way too errors to take much of anything from this fixture into the French game in a few weeks. The idea that Ireland were looking build some rhythm in this game was always a little off to me because five of the starting pack wouldn’t be playing against France anyway barring injuries, so this was a game for the wider squad to put down a marker. I don’t think they did, bar one or two.
Italy were decent but ultimately started to lose the game as the clock ticked towards the last quarter. What O’Shea is building is good but conditioning – amongst his forwards in particular – is a big issue for them going forward. If they fix that, they may well be able to catch teams on the hop until the perception of Italy changes and then a whole new set of challenges will come their way.
From Ireland’s perspective, they need to get their act tightened up soon enough because, despite the disjointed performance, Ireland got the result they needed to keep things alive heading into the last two games. A championship is still on but it won’t be for long if Ireland play like this against France, let alone Wales.
As per usual, players are rated based on their time on the pitch, if they were playing notably out of position, and on the overall curve of the team performance. DNP means the player did not feature and N/A means they weren’t on the pitch long enough to warrant a fair rating given the way the game went.
Josh Van Der Flier
Dave Kilcoyne did himself a world of good for his international career with a fine performance. His scrummaging was good and he pulled a double-double in 10 carries for positive metres gained and 10 tackles. Huge work rate and impact.
Tadhg Furlong was just his usual self – massively physical and constantly demanding defensive attention.
I thought Chris Farrell put in an excellent shift in difficult circumstances. He moved into #12 after 10 minutes and carried a lot of ugly ball for Ireland under a lot of defensive attention but still had the wherewithal to have some nice passing touches around the field.
I thought Peter O’Mahony was a standout in the Irish back row. He rucked well, carried well enough too and was a steadying hand in the lineout when we badly needed it. A crucial lineout steal in the last quarter put Italy down for good. Good stuff.
Keith Earls had a really good day here. He was a constant threat when he came into the line and stood up well to the pressure that came his way as he defended in a heavy traffic channel. His try was perfectly taken and he looked sharp all afternoon when he had space to work in.
There’s much to cover in this game and I’ll be doing that in TRK Premium all week long with GIF and Video Articles.