6N: Irish out to score tries vs Italy they didn’t vs France
After the rain, a rainbow. And maybe at the end of it a pot of gold for the Irish.
Having slipped out of France’s clutches in rainy Paris with one of rugby’s great escapes, Ireland’s schedule in the Six Nations is set up beautifully for a decent crack at a first title since 2015.
The Irish begin a run of three straight home games on Saturday when the Italians arrive in Dublin, where they haven’t won in 21 years. Ireland then has two weeks to get ready for Wales, and another two weeks for Scotland. The campaign ends at Twickenham against defending champion England, a clash highly anticipated whether it’s the decider or not.
In the meantime, Italy appears to be the ideal rebound opponent after the battering Ireland endured in Paris.
Italy faded late to England 46-15 on Sunday in Rome, and has had one less day of preparation than Ireland. By coach Conor O’Shea’s own admission, the Italians’ best won’t be good enough if the Irish produce their best, too. And Ireland does so more often than not because unlike against France, Ireland has no hangups about the Italians.
In their last two matchups, Ireland has ruthlessly posted 63 and 58 points, scoring nine tries in each.
The Irish are looking for another tries bonanza after being limited to four penalties and a mighty injury-time dropped goal to edge France .
England and Wales earned bonus-point wins last weekend, and even the Irish don’t doubt bonus points could make a difference by the final round.
“We are not happy we played a game in France and didn’t come away with any tries,” assistant coach Richie Murphy says.
“We’re not in this to just kick penalties and drop goals, so our focus will be to try and tighten up that attack a little bit and try and apply enough pressure to Italy and make sure that those options are put away this week.”
But to Ireland’s frustration, it didn’t pose a threat to the French try-line.
The French stifled the Irish and, combined with the rain which made the ball slick, slowed the game to a speed the visitors didn’t like and made it easier for them to be contained. The Irish gave their wings some room, but advantage was curbed, and their best moves led to penalties, not tries.
Ireland was also found wanting by its over-reliance on flyhalf Jonathan Sexton as a playmaker. So much hinged on Sexton to direct the attack because nobody else stepped up when the backs were split or when Sexton was tied up and couldn’t be first receiver.
The conditions were suited for grubber kicks and chips, but there were few, and too often the good work in the tight was spoiled by a dropped pass, wrong option, or turnover. Rain is forecast again on Saturday. The Irish can’t say they won’t be ready.
Despite all the toil, they pulled off a 15-13 win, only their fourth ever over France in France. The bonus was the match-ending 41 phases capped by Sexton’s 44-meter pot has given them a bullet-proof confidence they can overcome anything.
“When you have such a big moment like that after being under the pump,” prop Tadhg Furlong says, “it brings you a massive amount of satisfaction.”
With a good start achieved to the championship, coach Joe Schmidt opted for continuity in retaining the backline and freshening up half the pack. He’s also willing in home environs to debut young back Jordan Larmour, who has thrilled Irish rugby in his breakout season with his broken-field running.
It’s a first homecoming for O’Shea, the former Ireland fullback. There’s no mixed feelings for him. After celebrating his mother’s 80th birthday on Monday, he’s looking forward to picking Schmidt’s brain about what he targeted, and what more O’Shea could do. O’Shea knows one thing; Italy has to be disciplined.
“We can’t give them easy opportunities. You don’t want to be your own worst enemy,” he says. “They’re a brilliant side. They’ll probably be licking their lips with us coming into town.”
Ireland: Rob Kearney, Keith Earls, Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki, Jacob Stockdale, Jonathan Sexton, Conor Murray; Jack Conan, Dan Leavy, Peter O’Mahony, Devin Toner, Iain Henderson, Tadhg Furlong, Rory Best (captain), Jack McGrath. Reserves: Sean Cronin, Cian Healy, Andrew Porter, Quinn Roux, CJ Stander, Kieran Marmion, Joey Carbery, Jordan Larmour.
Italy: Matteo Minozzi, Tommaso Benvenuti, Tommaso Boni, Tommaso Castello, Mattia Bellini, Tommaso Allan, Marcello Violi; Sergio Parisse (captain), Abraham Steyn, Sebastian Negri, Dean Budd, Alessandro Zanni, Simone Ferrari, Luca Bigi, Nicola Quaglio. Reserves: Leonardo Ghiraldini, Andrea Lovotti, Tiziano Pasquali, Federico Ruzza, Maxime Mbanda, Edoardo Gori, Carlo Canna, Jayden Hayward.