Andy Farrell refused to accept his Ireland team were on a hiding to nothing in Rome as he savoured a first win of the 2021 Guinness Six Nations.
The victory, following defeats in Wales and at home to France, came courtesy of a comprehensive 48-10 result over Italy at the Stadio Olimpico. It had been a game framed as a no-win situation playing a team without a championship win since 2015 and having leaked 91 points in their opening two matches.
Yet head coach Farrell was delighted with the way his under-fire squad came out fighting against Italy, running in six tries, and revealing a clinical cutting edge that had been badly missed in the first two rounds.
The pressure had been on for an Ireland side under pressure to deliver a convincing attacking performance after managing only two tries and 29 points and they duly delivered, two tries from Will Connors and scores by Garry Ringrose, Hugo Keenan, CJ Stander, and Keith Earls, as well as a perfect return from the kicking tee for captain Johnny Sexton with six conversions and two penalties.
Whether it was a performance that will ready Ireland for a stiffer challenge against Scotland at Murrayfield next time out on March 14 remains to be seen but Farrell said: “We know that if we don't get our own intensity right then we don't get the right to earn the tries that we have today.
“I thought that's what we did, first and foremost, and we approached the game in the right manner and we earned the right to score the tries.
“Does that prepare us right for Murrayfield? Look, we take a break now, we get a weekend off, we'll dust ourselves down and we'll prepare as best we can for Murrayfield..
“We had two weeks off coming into this game and the question being asked during the week was if we were on a hiding to nothing. Well, not to us because we judge our own performance. Our performance and attitude were good today."
With the criticism focusing on a lack of creativity in attack, in particular a lack of offloading to unlock opposition defences, Farrell was delighted to see Ireland in ruthless mood in Rome, both Keenan and Connors profiting from perfectly-executed passes out of contact from Ringrose and Jordan Larmour respectively as the visitors romped into 27-10 half-time lead.
It was a first-half performance the head coach said he saw coming after a productive 10 days on the training field.
"I could actually and just because of the manner. Like we said all week, they want to play with ambition, they want to play with energy. They (Italy) have got some big, strong boys out there, and you've got to approach the game from a set-piece point of view, kicking point of view, defensive point of view, a breakdown pressure point of view - all those bits came together and we earned the right to strike at the right moment in the first half.
"I thought our forwards punching onto the ball was a different level today and the backs finished them off. The game was well-connected.”
He added: “I’m really proud of the players. They’ve shown real character over the last couple of weeks. It’s nice coming after two losses and waiting a couple of weeks to try and put that right. We talked about it being a test of character and staying strong, they’re just very united together. As a group I think they pulled together and showed their leadership in different ways.
“I thought we earned the right to score some points with the way that we approached the game in the first half. I thought our attitude was top class, approached the game in the right manner, we paid the game and Italy the right respect. I thought we punched away really well in the first half and then the game opened up.”
Ireland were set to return to Dublin on Saturday evening and will do so with injury concerns over a quartet of players who failed to finish the game.
Larmour was replaced on the right wing by Earls at half-time while there were issue for each of the starting front row, with Dave Kilcoyne removed early in the second half for a Head Injury Assessment as Tadhg Furlong and hooker Ronan Kelleher also went off hurt after the interval.
“There's a few niggles that we need to assess in the morning, especially after the flight home this evening so we'll see how people pull up,” Farrell said. “Jordan had a little bit of tightness in his hip flexor so we had Earlsy on early enough because we didn't want to take a risk there.
“Tadhg had just gone over on his ankle but he seemed to walk off pretty well. Ronan has just got a dead calf so he's going to be good and Dave Kilcoyne failed his HIA, but he's in good spirits in the changing room as well.”