The Ireland back-row picked up from where he left off last season, but the European champions will need to move up several gears as they build towards the World Cup
It was their 11th successive win and their 15th on the bounce at home. They have lost just one of 22 fixtures at Aviva Stadium under head coach Andy Farrell, to France in 2021.
Caelan Doris, making his first Test start at openside flanker, was Man of the Match after a typically impressive stint. Thirteen carries, 11 tackles, two offloads and two tries burnished his 29th International appearance.
So much for the bare stats. Ireland looked rusty, with a few too many handling errors and a couple of wasted opportunities from poorly executed lineout drives. With a swathe of fringe players hoping to state their case for inclusion in the World Cup squad, including debutants in Tom Stewart, Ciaran Frawley and Calvin Nash, the normal cohesion wasn’t there.
In fact, Italy won the second half, with well-taken tries by Lorenzo Pani and Tommaso Menoncello, each converted by Tommaso Allan. Both tries owed something to defensive fallibility, with Jacob Stockdale and then Keith Earls beaten a little too easily.
Not that Ireland looked remotely in danger of going down to the Azzurri for the first time on home soil since 1997.
The damage was done in the first half when Ireland led 21-3 after tries by Dave Kilcoyne, Doris and Stuart McCloskey.
Prop Kilcoyne went over from a pick and go to record just his second Test try in 52 caps, then Doris crossed from a lineout drive. Centre McCloskey got an early present ahead of his 31st birthday on Sunday by crashing over from short range after Doris had caused chaos in Italy’s ranks by sacking scrum-half Stephen Varney.
Jack Crowley, getting a start in the absence of the suspended Johnny Sexton, converted all three tries. When the stand-off returned after the break, it was to slot in at full-back as Jimmy O’Brien took his leave and Frawley came on at ten for his first cap.
There is, of course, something of the phoney war about matches such as these. Certainly for the first-choice players who know they’ll be on the plane providing injury doesn’t strike. Jack Conan and Craig Casey went off with potential knocks for Ireland, and Italy suffered a number of setbacks.
No 8 Toa Halafihi pulled out in the warm-up, necessitating the promotion from the bench of Lorenzo Cannone. Then tighthead Marco Riccioni limped off after just ten minutes, Simone Ferrari his replacement.
Further disruption followed when the English-born Paolo Odogwu, making his Italy debut, went off for an HIA that he failed. Pani, so emotional during the anthem when he made his Test debut in the defeat by Scotland last week, trotted on for his second cap.
Manuel Zuliani, who has been excellent of late, joined the ‘casualties’ just before half-time, walking off to be replaced by regular captain Michele Lamaro.
Of all the knocks and withdrawals, only one seemed significant, if Menoncello’s distraught reaction to an injury in the closing minutes is anything to go by. With the World Cup 34 days away, sadly some very fine players are going to miss out.
Italy will be happy with their lineout and their ability to slow Irish ball in the second half. Ireland will take the win for what it is: a flawed first outing in what they hope will lead to the World Cup final in Paris at the end of October.
“It’s great to be up and running,” said Doris, “but that was far from the perfect performance. Hopefully the rust will come off.”
The conditioning work done this summer distorts the true picture because many teams are fielding players in a far more fatigued condition than they will be at France 2023.
There was a try for Cian Healy before we were done, on the day the veteran prop became Ireland’s joint third-most capped player (124) along with Rory Best.
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