Sunday saw Ireland bring an end to Round 3 with a trip to Italy. While they made a number of changes in the pack, especially the tight 5, they put out their best available back line and tries from Quinn Roux and Jacob Stockdale in the first quarter suggested things could get out of hand. Italy got back into things though and tries from Edoardo Padovani and Luca Morisi gave them an unlikely 16-12 halftime lead. That was it for Italy though as they did not score a point in the second half, but they still made things hard for Ireland, who scored a further two tries through Keith Earls and Conor Murray to pull out a 16-26 victory.
Tried and tested
They may have got the win and the 4-try bonus point, but this was not a great performance from Ireland. The forwards went toe-to-toe with the Italians, but the backs struggled to have any significant impact on the game, with Roux and Earls going over from close range off Conor Murray playing the ball away from the ruck, Murray breaking off a driving maul and Stockdale pouncing on Italian errors at a kickoff.
Murray may have been credited with 2 assists and a try, but this glosses over a performance that was well below the level we expect of him, while Johnny Sexton was arguably even worse outside him. Sexton was also removed from kicking duties in favour of Murray.
After the game, Joe Schmidt appeared to suggest that Sexton had been roughed up a bit following the pass, but this is something that all top fly halves deal with when they take the ball to the line, yet Sexton appears to be the one who is most affected in terms of injuries. And yet despite both of them putting in poor performances, Murray was not replaced by John Cooney until the 71st minute and Jack Carty wasn’t brought on for Sexton until the 78th minute.
If I am either of those replacements, especially Carty, watching the man in front of them put in a poor performance and struggling to get the team going, then I would consider such a small cameo to be an insult. I understand that Murray and Sexton are the tried and tested options and I’m not suggesting that they be dropped moving forward, but if they get injured during the World Cup, then Joe Schmidt is running the risk of having to play someone who has just a handful of minutes’ international experience in 2 positions that are key to controlling the game.
Positives and negatives
Like their previous matches this year, this match suggested that Italy are a team on the up. They came into this game with Jake Polledri still unavailable and now missing Seb Negri and Sergio Parisse. Jimmy Tuivaiti and Maxime Mbanda played well in their absence (Steyn moved to 8 for this game) but the pair were both forced off the field due to injury. Jayden Hayward continues to play well in the absence of Matteo Minozzi and Tomasso Castello looked impressive when he replaced the injured Michele Campagnaro. For a team that has often struggled for depth, it is great to see that the depth in this squad is finally developing and while they didn’t score in the second half, the fact that they held Ireland to just 7 points in the final quarter is a testament to how much they have improved as this is usually when their performance has dropped off in recent years.
They are not perfect though. They still need to start scoring more tries and also make silly mistakes – they messed up 2 kickoff receptions in a row, 1 of which gifted Jacob Stockdale a try. Most importantly, though, they need to find a reliable kicker, as Tommaso Allan and Ian McKinley combined for 33% success off the tee, including a miss with the last play of the game to deny them a losing bonus point – why Conor O’Shea was adamant they attempt a difficult penalty from the touchline rather than kick for the corner is beyond me!
While it may go down as another loss, Italy are clearly taking steps towards claiming a big scalp in the tournament if they can continue to improve.
They deserve better
While I completely appreciate that Italy have been largely disappointing since their inclusion into the 6 Nations, I think the way that they are treated at times is absolutely awful.
Pundits and commentators are quick to throw out the stat of how long it has been since Italy won a match in the tournament and how many times they have been awarded the Wooden Spoon, while also talking about how well Georgia have done in recent years and leading the conversations about whether it is time Georgia replaced Italy in the tournament, without any mention that Italy actually won in Georgia 17-28 the last time they played each other! Georgia have arguably outgrown heir league, and the easy wins will mean that they continue to gain (arguably a small amount of) ranking points during the Rugby Europe Championship, while Italy are up against 5 Tier 1 nations so are always going to be at risk of losing ranking points during the 6 Nations, making the comparison to Georgia in the World Rankings look even worse.
The way they are treated during matches also does not seem in line with the Tier 1 nations in the tournament. Tito Tebaldi was (in my opinion) clearly blocked by Rob Kearney when chasing kick through into the Irish 22 – Tebaldi clearly turned away from Kearney, who continued to run across the scrum half and body-check him. Had this been the other way round, I would be shocked if the referee had not stopped the game to check the infringement with the TMO, yet in this case Glen Jackson chose to play on and had the TMO take a quick check in the background, while the commentary was immediately accusing Tebaldi of running into the defender and made no comment when the replay showed otherwise. I can’t help but feel that had it been a Tier 1 nation involved rather than Italy, the whole incident would have been treated very differently.
While I agree that Italy need to keep improving, all I ask is that they be given an equal footing and the same respect as Tier 1 nations and the teams around them in the world rankings.