The sluggish start that undid Joe Schmidt’s much-fancied side in Scotland in round one of this RBS 6 Nations may still come back to hurt their title aspirations but in hammering Italy at the Stadio Olimpico on Saturday, Ireland have at least restored a little of their mojo heading into the final three games of the 2017 Championship.
As if jolted into life by an early morning double espresso on the Via Veneto, Ireland atoned for their opening-day 27-22 loss at Murrayfield the previous week.
Their sloppy first-half performance against the Scots was replaced by a fast start in Rome that was aggressive, adventurous, and high in intensity.
Missing captain Rory Best and instead starting with debutant hooker Niall Scannell, the visitors signalled their intent at the first scrum, pulverising the Italian pack to strike at the heart of home morale.
Worse was to come for the Azzurri, who for all the optimism brought by new head coach Conor O’Shea looked as vulnerable as rampant Ireland, so much sharper in attack, secured their try bonus point before half-time courtesy of a pair of scores each from wing Keith Earls and back-rower CJ Stander.
Donnacha Ryan’s sin-binning on 32 minutes had left Ireland short-handed and followed the awarding of a penalty try by Glen Jackson after the Irish forwards repeatedly collapsed mauls in the home side’s one period of pressure inside the 22.
Yet even at a numerical disadvantage, Ireland kept the ball out of Italian hands and averted the pressure that losing possession would have placed on their defence and instead added seven points, the second of Stander’s tries, to leave Ireland leading 35-10 at the break.
Shortly after the interval, Stander added a third to become the first forward to score a Six Nations hat-trick as Italy imploded further.
Craig Gilroy came off the bench in the 48th minute as Robbie Henshaw was withdrawn as a precaution after bruising a quad muscle and promptly scored a hat-trick of tries with a 32-minute appearance showcasing his fantastic pace and footwork, outsmarting Italian defenders and leaving them in his tracks to twice score under the posts.
Garry Ringrose was none too shabby either, his second-half try coming from an excellent line off fly-half Paddy Jackson’s inside shoulder and eluding at least four tackles on his way to the tryline.
Barely a contest as Ireland ran in nine tries, all of them converted by Jackson, who could do no more to enhance his credentials as a viable alternative to the fit-again Johnny Sexton.
There will need to be more of the same throughout the rest of this championship if they are to have a hope of winning the 2017 title.
France will be visiting Dublin on February 25, followed by a Friday night trip to Cardiff to face Wales on March 10 before champions England come to the Aviva Stadium on March 18, and Schmidt believes his players have rediscovered the minimum requirements for opening Test matches in the strongest possible fashion.
“I think it’s the standard the players want,” Schmidt said.
“You have a look at our start against Australia, our start against the All Blacks in Chicago, even our start, as much as the All Blacks scored early in the Aviva, I thought in the next 10 minutes we put them under pressure and were a little bit unlucky from a scrum not to get some sort of result.
“So I think we crossed the line twice in the next 10 minutes after they scored a try, so as far as starts are concerned, it’s unusual for us (the first half against Scotland). We touched upon a few things during the week to make sure guys were ready and they hit the ground running. But the championship is a little bit different.
“You want to win every Test match, you want to perform well, the crowds are there and there’s a great atmosphere. But the accumulation of knowing that there’s points up for grabs can just cause guys to get a little bit spooked.
We have a number of guys playing in their first or second championship so they don’t quite have that experience. So hopefully after this they’ll build confidence and appreciate that they can live up to these big matches.”
Yet Ireland will have to deal with much more testing circumstances than the ones presented to them in Italy and the nagging defensive concerns that surfaced at Murrayfield as Scotland ran the Irish ragged with three tries inside the first half-hour may have been addressed in part in that second period in Edinburgh but there was hardly any stress testing of the systems by Italy’s attack.
The Murrayfield mauling still has to be consigned to history as far as Schmidt is concerned.
“It’s always going to rattle around, you know?”
Schmidt said of the opening-day defeat, “just because there are things that are always a concern that they might pop up again. I don’t think any progress is linear, as I said last week, I think there are different things... it’s a bit like tuning a car, you might tinker with this part of it and it’s this part over here that doesn’t quite function as a result. And you’re always trying to make sure as much of it is running as smoothly as possible.”
E Padovani; A Esposito, T Benvenuti (M Campagnaro, 48), L McLean, G Venditti; C Canna (T Allan, 71), E Gori (G Bronzini, 60); A Lovotti (S Panico, 63), L Ghiraldini (O Gega, 47), L Cittadini (D Chistolini, h-t, Cittadini 58); M Fuser, D Van Schalkwyk (G Biagi, 47); M Mbanda, S Favaro (A Steyn, 57), S Parisse – captain.
R Kearney; K Earls, G Ringrose, R Henshaw (C Gilroy, 48), S Zebo (I Keatley, 75); P Jackson, C Murray (K Marmion, 68); C Healy (J McGrath, 50), N Scannell (J Tracy, 62), T Furlong (J Ryan, 53); D Ryan, D Toner (U Dillane, 60); CJ Stander, S O’Brien (J van der Flier, 68), J Heaslip – captain.
D Ryan 32-42 mins
Glen Jackson (New Zealand).