Ireland's defeat of Italy keeps the home fires burning for March

Ireland 56 Italy 19: As an emotional Conor O’Shea assessed a seventh, consecutive Six Nations defeat on his watch, as Italy’s head coach, on Saturday night, he insisted the Azzurri had no option but to keep the head down and continue making the hard yards.

“Avanti. Avanti. Avanti. Forward. Forward. Forward,” he declared, for the benefit of Italian and Irish reporters alike.

The same applies to the team O’Shea once represented at full-back, and his opposite number, Joe Schmidt. Yet, where Italy lack confidence, and the depth to tweak selections, Ireland are doing quite nicely, as they head into a rest week after two winning rounds of the championship.

“If you’d said to me, two weeks ago, you could have nine points and a 39-point differential, I’d have bitten your hand off,” head coach, Schmidt, said. He was buoyed by the dramatic win, in overtime against France, in Paris, and an eight-try romp at the weekend, albeit the latter tempered by a serious-looking shoulder injury to Robbie Henshaw.

It is unlikely the centre will be making the journey to his hometown club, Buccaneers RFC, tomorrow, when Schmidt will reconvene for a short training camp in Athlone, with 20 fully fit players and a couple of others finding their way back to full match readiness, such as tighthead prop, Tadhg Furlong, who lasted just four minutes against Italy. He was removed as a precaution, having felt tightness in a hamstring. The rest of the 36-man squad will be released back to their provinces and made available for next weekend’s round of Guinness PRO14 matches.

The following Saturday, February 24, it will be Wales arriving in Dublin, looking to rebound from their 12-6 defeat to defending champions, England. Ireland will be looking to get over a considerable roadblock in their path to a first title since 2015.

There will be no talk of a potential Grand Slam decider with the English, at Twickenham, on March 17, just yet, despite O’Shea asserting that will be the way this championship will pan out, and despite his captain, Sergio Parisse, declaring the Irish were playing the better rugby of the two sides and were more difficult to play against. He has played against both within the first seven days of the competition.

Schmidt, though, has been here before and knows the pitfalls of not staying next-game focused. Winning at Stade de France was a huge boost to morale, he said, while a bonus-point victory over Italy had shown him his side was “heading in the right direction”, following a tryless outing in Paris.

“Wales will be a whole different scenario,” he continued, during his post-match press conference, having cancelled his traditional, post-match briefing with daily newspaper journalists for the first time in his 52-match tenure.

“They play a lot of territory. They force you to bring the ball back against a full line of defence, they are very attacking as a defensive side, and they squeeze you and force errors. They have guys who are quick and who can turn things around very quickly, the likes of (scrum-half) Gareth Davies.

“For us, where we are now, we’ve already started thinking forward, because we don’t really have too much time to reflect.”

Schmidt will ponder an impressive opening 40 minutes, during which Ireland ruthlessly capitalised on a string of Italian errors, at the set-piece and in open play, as the visitors began in a manner that suggested they were still punch-drunk, following their 46-15 drubbing by England, in Rome, just six days earlier.

Converted tries from Henshaw, man-of-the-match, Conor Murray, and Bundee Aki, the latter’s first for Ireland, rendered this game over, as a contest, by the 21st minute, at 21-0. When Keith Earls brought up the bonus point with a fourth try, five minutes before the break, the men in green were over the hills and far away.

Schmidt shuffled his pack at the interval, replacing Iain Henderson with Quinn Roux, at lock, and withdrawing No.8, Jack Conan, following a bang on the shoulder. CJ Stander was sprung from the bench, but it was the enforced changed, four minutes into the second-half, that caused most ripples. Henshaw had gone over for his second try, but had landed awkwardly and was unable to continue, prompting the eagerly-awaited introduction of 20-year-old debutant, Jordan Larmour. Not the ideal scenario for the Leinster prodigy. Henshaw’s departure led to a backline reshuffle, Larmour taking Earls’ place on the right wing, as the Munster star moved and filled the vacuum at outside centre.

Half-backs, Murray and Sexton, who had successfully kicked all five conversions to that point, were wisely removed soon after, their work complete and with an eye to keeping them fresh for the Wales game.

The rejig allowed Italy to finally gain a foothold, though not before Irish captain, Rory Best, powered over for a sixth home try, the first of three conversions from three for Sexton’s impressive replacement, Joey Carbery.

Tommy Allan converted his own, 55th minute try to finally get the visitors on the scoreboard, and though Ireland would strike twice more, thanks to the finishing prowess of left-wing, Jacob Stockdale, to break through the 50-point barrier against Italy for the third season in a row, those tries were countered by scores from Edoardo Gori and Matteo Minozzi.

The late Italian flurry will serve as a valuable reality check for Ireland, for though they have some serious momentum building now, there are stiffer challenges ahead. That the next two examinations of Ireland’s title credentials, against Wales, and then Scotland, on March 10, come on home soil will be a comfort and Schmidt made great play of an impressive championship record at the Aviva.

“You do feel that you have a chance, when you can get those first two wins, especially when you get an away win, first up, and you know your next two games are at home,” he said.

“We haven’t lost a Six Nations game at home in the five years I’ve been involved. So, there’s a real benchmark there and a real pride that we can, hopefully, defend. We had one draw with Wales, post-World Cup, when I felt we had to start again and build again.

“We probably had a couple of knock-backs, injury-wise, today and, hopefully, most of them are going to be okay. So, it’s a bit of a ‘wait and see’, really. Every week is a bit different and every championship is a little different.”

IRELAND:

R Kearney; K Earls, R Henshaw (J Larmour, 44), B Aki, J Stockdale; J Sexton (J Carbery, 51), C Murray (K Marmion, 51); J McGrath (C Healy, 68), R Best - captain (S Cronin, 61), T Furlong (A Porter, 4); I Henderson (Q Roux, h-t), D Toner; P O’Mahony, D Leavy, J Conan (CJ Stander, h-t).

ITALY:

M Minozzi; T Benvenuti, T Boni (J Hayward, 54), T Castello, M Bellini; T Allan, M Violi (E Gori, 58); N Quaglio (A Lovotti, 37), L Bigi (L Ghiraldini, 44), S Ferrari (T Pasquali, 54); A Zanni, D Budd; S Negri (F Ruzza, 58), A Steyn (M Mbanda, 44), S Parisse - captain.

Replacement not used:

C Canna.

Referee:

Romain Poite (France).


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