While Ireland came away with the win against Italy, they will know they have to perform better against France to avoid a likely quarter-final with New Zealand
By Mark Coughlan
Three wins from three, and a showdown with France to come. Everything is going much as Ireland would have planned in Pool D of the World Cup so far, but their 16-9 win over Italy was hardly emphatic.
“We made it tough for ourselves,” Joe Schmidt said after the game, and Rory Best agreed, telling the press “we’re not very pleased with the manner in which we played, and we absolutely need to step it up a few gears for the France game.”
While Italy’s line speed and defensive commitment played a large part in Ireland being so quiet, there is a worry that the boys in green are suffering from yet another severe case of World Cup-itis. Or are they just holding something back for the big games? We’ll find out on Sunday. Here are a few lessons that need to be learned from the Italy victory, though…
1. DEFENSIVE SPEED
Brian O’Driscoll pointed this out in his studio analysis, and if it’s good enough for BOD, it’s good enough for us. Ireland’s defensive line was just too passive throughout the game, with Keith Earls at 13 seemingly reading a different playbook. It wasn’t fatal, but Ireland just conceded needless territory time and time again. Firstly, 11 minutes into the game, and Earls comes flying out of the line, while the rest of the backs stay aligned, giving Italy space to attack outside him and forcing Ireland to conceded 20 metres before Tommy Bowe makes a tackle…
Compare that to the 33 minute mark, where Italy have a scrum just outside their 22. Again, they choose to move it out to the wider channels, but this time Ireland are aligned with Earls deeper, and the tackle isn’t made until beyond the ten metre line.
Giving ground is fine, but Ireland need to pick and choose when and where to hit up, and do it all together. Jared Payne led the defensive line against Romania, and hopefully his return will see a return to a solid line.
2. KICK DECISIONS
Joe Schmidt’s Ireland have built their foundation on a solid game and a superb kicking game, with kick chasing an integral part. Tommy Bowe looked like he was approaching something like his best in the air, while Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton pinned Italy back time and time again – clearly the tactic was to let Italy make mistakes from deep. The problem? An over-reliance on the boot, and it’s something better teams will be wise to and will punish. To clumsily paraphrase Kenny Rogers, ‘you’ve got to know when to kick the ball, know when to hold it’. One passage in the 58th minute highlights the good and bad of the Irish kicking game on Sunday.
After a Sexton penalty put Ireland 13-9 up, a textbook kick-off routine saw Murray clear the ball and Tommy Bowe chase, leap and regather.
From here, the winger presents the ball perfectly…
…and Ireland are flying on the front foot. With quick ball, though, Murray goes to type and kicks the ball into space behind Italy. Just look at the number of Irish players standing in the line as Murray picks the ball up, while there are 10 Italians who are out of the game with one decent pass to the waiting players.
While Ireland eventually win a penalty, this is one of the few moments they had Italy truly exposed. Choosing when to make the most of these situations could make or break the game on Sunday.
LEARN FROM YOUR ERRORS
A simple one, this, but again Sunday was very unlike the men in green we’ve come to know so well. Joe Schmidt has instilled a gameplan where you just can’t second guess this Irish team, with plans B, C and D ready to be rolled out.
Against Italy, though, Ireland stubbornly refused to change from their Plan A – kick, win the ball, set up a maul and drive. The tactic was first foiled by Quintin Geldenhuys coming through the middle of a maul in the 32nd minute…
…then by Josh Furno doing the same minutes later.
Ireland then get a penalty metres out from the Italian line in the 38th minute – time for one more opportunity before half-time. The men in green decide to kick to the corner, but there is no disguise, no clever sleight of hand and no different option. Just throw to the front and drive, and Italy – once again – come through the middle, spoiling the maul enough that Rory Best goes to ground, and under pressure, Conor Murray knocks on. Chance gone.
They aren’t huge faults in a gameplan, but Ireland need to be a bit cleverer with every kick, pass and tackle they make, and choose their moments when to strike in both attack and defence. The game against France is bound to come down to the tiniest of margins – Ireland just need to be on the right side of them.