Italian demolitions must always carry health warning for Ireland

It may be worth remembering what happened after Ireland’s last Italian job
Italian demolitions must always carry health warning for Ireland

Ireland’s Craig Casey celebrates with James Lowe at Stadio Olimpico, Rome. However, the next two weekends remain pivotal. Picture: Tommy Dickson

Italy dispatched, the team leader stepped up in front of the cameras and delivered his take on the victory with that unmistakable north of England accent so redolent of Emmerdale, Tetley Bitter and the game of rugby league on which he was weaned.

“It’s a step forward for us,” he said. “In terms of what we were after, in terms of intent, in terms of energy, in terms of how we attacked the game, I thought that was brilliant. It felt like we were back to ourselves.”

This was Owen Farrell’s take after England followed up their opening Six Nations loss to Scotland with a facile, six-try, 23-point mauling of an Italian side that was registering a 29th straight loss in the competition.

Two weeks later and his father Andy would be singing a similar tune after Italy were condemned to a 30th.

Ireland would match England’s half-dozen tries and put an extra seven points to boot on the scoreboard at the Stadio Olimpico, the comfort blanket that is home advantage pulled even further away from the Azzurri’s toes by Covid and the lack of fans.

The Ireland head coach was almost indignant when asked what use this romp actually was in preparing his up-and-down side for the trip to Murrayfield this Sunday. “I don’t know if you are trying to be disrespectful or not,” he replied.

What followed was the usual treatise on how Ireland had to get their intensity right and earn the right to score tries. As work goes, it was money for jam. England and France should feel equally uneasy at boosting bank balances against a side that can barely clock in. 

Italy have conceded 19 tries and 139 points in the opening three rounds. No team has missed more tackles and their penalty count is equalled only by England. And yet Johnny Sexton lauded them as a “well-coached team” after the slaughter in Rome. Diplomacy is one thing but this was Comical Ali territory.

None of which is an issue if it’s all for show. The hope is Ireland aren’t feeding themselves the same shtick behind closed doors and that expressions of positivity are based on far more than a cakewalk against the worst side in Six Nations history. 

It may be worth remembering what happened after Ireland’s last Italian job. It’s only last Halloween so the memories of that defeat to France in Paris seven days later should still be reasonably fresh as attention turns to Scotland.

Ireland were still in with a shot of the title that night in Saint-Denis but a decent first half-hour drained away into another pageant of what ifs and head-shaking. France won out 35-27 and that scoreline hid any amount of issues.

The visitors’ lineout, long since the chief weapon in their arsenal, malfunctioned. There were scrum problems, poor decision-making, bad handling and boot to ball the use of which was as debatable as any Garryowen.

It was another two steps back after the breezy progress made the game before. Ireland have simply been unable to put a solid 80 minutes or back-to-back performances of note together for far too long.

Games against the French and England were supposed to be the barometer for how this side was progressing but a first loss in five meetings with Wales, regardless of the circumstances, isn’t suggestive of a side speeding in the right direction.

The focus since Rome has centred largely on the impressive first-half rather than the half-hour or spell after the break when Ireland lost their direction and failed to make their mark against a side reduced to 14 and, for over four minutes, 13 players.

Ireland’s players and management have been insistent for over two years now that the side is just a tweak here or a clinical touch there away from everything clicking and the good times returning and Farrell is maintaining this glass half-full approach ahead of the Scots.

“You are always going to over analyse your own game and work on what could have gone better,” he said late last week, “but after a couple of defeats and going into the game with a bit of pressure on the lads we asked for them to show our character with the right attitude. Rather than dwell on the negatives we can focus on the positives and our attitude was top-class going into the [Italy] game.

“It was mentioned during the week that you are on a hiding to nothing. I suppose that’s how it was seen from the outside but we judge ourselves by our own attitude and application and, as I said last week, I’ve been in Rome with many’s a team that has nearly slipped up against Italy before, and history shows that teams have slipped up against them before, because of the wrong attitude. I thought we got that spot on, especially in the first-half.”

There have been exceptional individual performances so far, periods where the collective has clicked and improvements to the set piece but one sunny afternoon in Rome is not and never has been reason to declare that any corner has been turned.

The next two weekends remain pivotal.

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