Simon Zebo needs some arm around the shoulder encouragement

After what is proving a pretty soul-destroying season for Irish rugby on both the provincial and international front, at last, a bit of respite. An energy-filled, try-fest on a bright and sunny day that even elicited a sustained Mexican Wave in the second half, brought smiles back to the faces of a beleaguered management and a restless rugby public.
Simon Zebo needs some arm around the shoulder encouragement

Any day Ireland register 58 points and nine tries in a Six Nations encounter shouldn’t be scoffed at. While the players and management will enjoy this encouraging performance and welcome victory, they will also treat it with a dose of reality. It was Italy after all.

Not unlike Joe Schmidt’s squad, Italy have endured a horrific run of injuries of late with the loss of the promising new half back pairing of Edoardo Gori and Carlo Canna proving particularly costly.

Despite that growing casualty list, Italy had remained competitive throughout this championship with no side coming close to dispatching them with the relative ease with which Ireland went about their business on Saturday.

Leading by a margin of 22 points at half-time, this contest became about putting down a marker for the future and closing a door on the recent past. With a series of daunting challenges against the best the SANZAR nations have to offer from next June onwards, this game transitioned into a launchpad towards building confidence in our ability to put opposition under pressure with ball in hand.

From that perspective Jamie Heaslip’s brilliant try on the stroke of half-time underlined the possibilities available when Ireland focus on attacking space and offload in the tackle. The catalyst for that score, the try of the championship to date for me, was Johnny Sexton’s refusal to play the clock with the sanctuary of the dressing room only 25 seconds away when he received possession just outside his own 22.

The easy option was to kick but he choose to run. Outside him was a willing accomplice and someone who constantly looks to keep the ball alive in Simon Zebo. He only knows one way and his sumptuous offload to Jared Payne opened up all kinds of possibilities.

With support runners sprinting from all angles, it enabled Payne, Sexton, Andrew Trimble and Fergus McFadden to keep the break out alive with the experienced Heaslip anticipating exactly where he needed to be to finish off a breathtaking score and end the half on a high.

Do we continue to chastise Zebo for the irregular blips that blight him on occasion or do we recognise and reward the inventiveness and creativity that he brought to the show on this occasion? Zebo brings something that Ireland have been lacking all season - unpredictability in attack and for that reason alone he deserves to start against Scotland next weekend.

He has the capacity to create opportunities for others, especially from full back, and that needs to be recognised. In the same way that Eddie Jones put his arms around Billy Vunapola and made him feel appreciated and loved in the England set-up, perhaps the time has come for Zebo to be applauded and rewarded for the things he does well.

Marvel too at the excellence and bravery of Sexton who has shown signs now in consecutive internationals that he is approaching the form that made him such a vital cog in Ireland’s back-to-back championship winning sides.

Once again he was subjected to a number of big hits from an opposition keen to leave their mark but he never flinched. At times he was prepared to sacrifice himself in the knowledge that by taking the ball flat to the gain line he was leaving himself open to be smashed.

That is exactly what he did in the build up to C J Stander’s maiden international try when he enticed Parisse out of the Italian defensive line to open a hole on the inside for the tracking Keith Earls.

Sexton knew what was coming and Parisse didn’t disappoint but the end justified the means. Stander in particular has reason to be grateful to his No 10.

The key difference in this performance was Ireland’s delivery of a rock solid set piece platform that recorded an unblemished 100% return. Italy’s front row resources were depleted with such stalwarts as Martin Castrogiovanni, Leonardo Ghiraldini and Lorenzo Cittadini all ruled out, while losing both second rows in George Biagi and Marco Fuser within the opening 35 minutes meant that Ireland’s scrum was largely untroubled throughout.

The lineout too proved a fruitful source and quality possession and that enabled the excellent Robbie Henshaw to get over the gain line and create forward momentum.

The lifeblood of any team is competition for places. As if challenged and energised by the positive impact delivered by Ultan Dillane on debut in Twickenham, both second rows lifted their overall levels of performance in the certainty that Dillane would be offered more game time in the second half than the memorable 15 minute cameo seized so spectacularly by the Kerry man in London.

It was as if Donnacha Ryan and Devin Toner challenged each other to last the course. Outside of the set piece, both delivered big time in terms of positive carries and hard grunt but Ryan’s superior handling skills won out and saw him cap a very positive contribution in tandem with a new partner when Dillane replaced Toner with 25 minutes to go. With Iain Henderson hopefully back in time to compete for a place in the second row for the tour to South Africa, a bit of light is being shed in a key area in the wake of Paul O Connell’s retirement.

Whatever about the merit of the opposition, this was a red letter day - or more fittingly green - for Connacht rugby when Finley Bealham’s introduction off the bench for his international debut meant that, for the closing 14 minutes of the game, the Guinness Pro 12 leaders had five players on an Irish team at the same time.

In what must surely be a first, that is some statement on the state of the game in the West of Ireland and could yet inspire them to achieve great things in the weeks and months to come.

It wasn’t all sweetness and light however and the defensive vulnerability out wide that has plagued Ireland all tournament came back to bite them once again this time out. In the opening minutes of the game, on their first incursion into the Irish 22, Italy’s Gonzalo Garcia was denied a try by a superb Conor Murray cover tackle which just forced Garcia’s boot into touch when immediately targeting that five metre channel.

With the contest dead and buried in the second half and the Italians out on their feet, they still managed to register two tries when Ireland were caught narrow once again. While it mattered little to the outcome of this match you can be sure that Scotland, just like all Irish opposition since that fateful World Cup quarter final against Argentina in Cardiff last October, will have taken note.

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