Joe Schmidt's Ireland huffed and puffed but eventually pulled away from a dogged Italy side to leave Rome in credit
It was the ultimate bloodless coup. Italy never really fired a shot, and Ireland were able to roll from first gear, into second and maybe at a push, briefly got into third to run out comfortable winners without really having to dip into their bag of tricks, or even show that much of their hand. Here’s the five pointers we learned from the match:
Joe Schmidt had gelled up on his ‘Italian Rugby Cliches Manual’
Deny them early momentum. Tick. Don’t let them get on top in the set piece. Tick. Grind them down slowly. Tick. Earn the right to go wide. Tick. Joe Schmidt had clearly read the Handy Media Guide to Beating Italy and felt that, on balance, most of it still held true. Ireland squeezed the Italian lineout, got the nudge on their scrum and proceeded to dismantle them very, very slowly.
Indeed, one attack in the Italian 22 in the first half was so narrow they might as well have reached a gentlemans’s agreement not to bother setting up another ruck after each phase and just charge up the same channel again.
Schmidt’s all conquering system, erm, conquers all
Joe Schmidt’s greatest achievement as Ireland coach so far is his ability to withstand the loss of key individuals. Like a rugby equivalent of Arrigo Sacchi, he is a firm believer in building playing systems around which the players perform. So when Sean O’Brien pulled up in the warm-up, Schmidt would have been confident that Tommy O’Donnell would have known exactly what was required of him as his replacement.
It seemed apt that O’Donnell should score the second try, barrelling over superbly from Ian Madigan’s cut-out pass. It does, however, leave Ireland looking a little dull on occasions. They never offload or run the ball in their own half, or do anything off the cuff. Outmuscling French fatties tends not to be a profitable strategy – just ask Scotland – so expect at least the occasional bit of panache next week.
Ireland need Jonny
To be clear, Ian Keatley, did plenty of good things. He put in some decent tactical kicks and dinked everything off the tee through the sticks, but he also threw in a few loose kicks and lacks Sexton’s ability to run and pass with authority on the gainline. But, hey, doesn’t everyone? That’s why Johnny Sexton is the world’s premier fly-half.
It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that Sexton remains absolutely essential to Ireland’s ability to challenge for a second successive championship. After 12 weeks kicking his heels, Johnny will have nervous energy to burn, but he’ll need to be at his controlled best next week against Les Bleus.
Ireland have bench impact
Momentum picked up notably once Iain Henderson and Ian Madigan came onto the pitch. It was as if a switch was flicked and the team set about putting the Italians away for good. Iain Henderson reminds us of Stephen Ferris; his upright carrying style looks technically dubious but he’s so strong – with an added 4kg of muscle recently added – it just enables him to stay on his feet longer. It’s how the Springboks do things.
And while it’s a real pity Ian Madigan seems doomed never to be able to bring his tactical kicking game to the level where he can be trusted to start Test matches, he remains Ireland’s best passer of a football. While Keatley was preferred to start this game, it’s likely that Madigan will remain on the bench when Sexton returns, since his unstructured brilliance is best suited to the last 20 minutes of matches.
Mike Ross – he’s ALIVE!
Some punters (by which we mean ‘we’) were quick to question the selection of Mike Ross at tighthead. He didn’t make the Leinster matchday squad in their last two ERCC pool matches, with Irish eligible players preferred in his stead. It’s all a bit like that time Deccie kept picking Donncha O’Callaghan even though Donnacha Ryan had displaced him at Munster and was playing fantastically.
We digress, credit to Ross, who dominated his opponent in the scrum and set the tone for a dominant set piece performance by Ireland. But it remains to be seen over the course of the championship whether Schmidt is right to persist in the hope that Ross can hang on until the World Cup, or if he should be concentrating all his efforts on Marty Moore and Nathan White.