Ireland regained some of their mojo in Rome as they swept aside an Italy team in disarray to gain their first victory of the 2021 Guinness Six Nations.
Following narrow defeats to both Wales in Cardiff and at home to France in the first two rounds, Ireland had their backs against the wall and under heavy criticism from pundits having mustered just two tries and 29 points in those defeats.
Victory at Stadio Olimpico was expected against a side without a championship win in 29 matches, a losing run dating back to 2015, but the focus was on the manner of Ireland’s performance in achieving their objective.
The answer should relieve some of the pressure that had mounted on head coach Andy Farrell and his attack coach Mike Catt as Ireland played with variety and creativity in attack, finally getting their offloading game going while also building strongly off a dominant set-piece.
Johnny Sexton’s side ran in six tries and capitalised on sloppy Italy discipline, they were down to 13 men for a period of the second half when front-row duo Giosue Zilocchi and captain Luca Bigi were sin-binned, but this bonus point will raise spirits ahead of more difficult assignments to come, away to Scotland on March 14 and home to England in the final round on March 20.
Italy were forced into a late change when 19-year-old Gloucester scrum-half Stephen Vaughan was forced out after injuring his left hand in the warm-up. That meant promotion for his former English club-mate Callum Braley to the number nine jersey, Guglielmo Pallazani moving onto the bench.
It did little to upset Italian confidence initially as the home side took the lead, Paolo Garbisi opening the scoring after Tadhg Furlong was penalised for the second time in the opening three minutes for not rolling away at the ruck.
It was a short-lived lead, however as Ireland got up and running in Rome courtesy of sloppy Italian play, Bigi pinged for offside in front of his kicker and Sexton levelling the scores on five minutes.
Much better was to come from Ireland, and it was the style of play their critics had been begging for, strong carrying and quickly recycled ball undoing flimsy home defence. Iain Henderson believed he had scored but referee Mathieu Raynal thought the lock had lost control of the ball in his grounding.
It mattered little as Ireland delivered an indisputable try moments later, the high-tempo phase play continuing before Garry Ringrose eyed a gap in the defensive line and crashed over for the opening try on 11 minutes, Sexton adding the conversion.
The captain added another penalty six minutes later as Italy were penalised at a ruck to open the visitor’s lead to 13-3 but then had to switch into defensive mode as Italy regained the initiative for a spell, the siege relieved only when Dave Kilcoyne eked a scrum penalty at tighthead Marco Riccioni’s expense.
Ireland stretched their lead with two quickly-taken tries in four minutes after the half-hour mark and both scores came from smartly executed offloads. The first on 31 minutes came as Ireland launched off a lineout, Jamison Gibson-Park initially taking the short-side route before moving the Italian defence around to the openside, Sexton feeding Ringrose whose offload found full-back Hugo Keenan running a great line to break through, his acceleration too good for chasing wing Luca Sperandio.
Sexton’s conversion made it 20-3 and the scoreboard kept spinning as a Jordan Larmour offload put in Will Connors for his second Test try, the flanker’s maiden score having also come against Italy in the 2020 Six Nations on debut last October.
After the turgid struggle against France 14 days earlier this was a breath of fresh from Ireland as Sexton’s conversion sent them into a 27-3 lead though the half-time team talk will have been tempered by the concession of a Johan Meyer try, courtesy of a Garbisi offload in the corner in first-half overtime, the fly-half having stepped inside Furlong before Meyer crashed through Larmour’s tackle.
Garbisi converted to the end the half with Ireland still in control at 27-10 and their dominance continued after the interval as Italy were again sloppy, running ahead of their kicker as scrum-half Braley cleared from the kick-off.
The penalty went to the corner, Ireland again launched off a lineout and after a series of one-out forward carries to the line, CJ Stander scored on 42 minutes to bring up the try bonus point, Sexton’s conversion stretching the lead to 34-10.
For all Ireland’s renewed vigour there was no denying Italy’s complicity in enabling it and with Raynal keeping strict control of the contest, their indiscipline yielding a yellow card for replacement prop Zilocchi on 60 minutes.
Ireland nearly took immediate advantage of their numerical superiority as Ronan Kelleher took a tap penalty that led to another touchdown for Stander from close range but the hooker was found to have knocked on in contact prior to the No.8’s carry over the line.
Ireland introduced scrum-half Craig Casey and lock Ryan Baird for their Test debuts on 63 minutes and Italy’s implosion continued when captain Bigi joined Zilocchi in the bin for an accumulation of Italy offsides shortly after.
Ireland had little opposition against the 13 men as they hammered home their two-man advantage, a five-metre lineout from the Bigi penalty providing the platform once more, Connors peeling off the strong drive for his second try on 65 minutes.
Casey got in on the action with a pass to release James Lowe towards the line, which he reached only for the try to be disallowed for a forward pass from the scrum-half and the game lost its flow from that point in a scrappy closing 10 minutes.
There was still time for a last try, though, Keith Earls scoring at the death from a great pass to the right wing from Sexton, whose conversion was the final act of the contest, completing a perfect day off the tee. Eight from eight.
J Trulla; L Sperandio (M Bellini, h-t), J I Brex (F Mori, 69), C Canna, M Ioane; P Garbisi, C Braley (G Pallazanni, 77); A Lovotti (C Traore, 43), L Bigi – captain, M Riccioni (G Zilocchi, 43, G Lucchesi, 69); M Lazzaroni (N Cannone, 44), D Sisi; S Negri (M Mbanda, 74), J Meyer, M Lamaro.
Zilocchi 60-70, Bigi 64-74
H Keenan; J Larmour (K Earls, h-t), G Ringrose, R Henshaw (B Burns, 70), J Lowe; J Sexton - captain (C Healy, 46 - HIA), J Gibson-Park (C Casey, 63); D Kilcoyne, R Kelleher (R Herring, 63), T Furlong (A Porter, 46); I Henderson (R Baird, 63), J Ryan; T Beirne, W Connors, CJ Stander (J Conan, 63).
Mathieu Raynal (France).