The warm-up matches for the World Cup began on Saturday with Ireland taking on Italy at the Aviva Stadium. Both teams rested the vast majority of their starters, giving the rest of their squad a chance to earn a spot in the World Cup squads. Italy started well and put the Irish under pressure with 2 tries in the first quarter, but they were kept scoreless after that as Ireland grew into that match on their way to a 29-10 victory, through the Irish will be nervous after Joey Carbery left the field with an ankle injury.
With the starting XV made up of players hoping to earn a spot on the plane, everybody will have wanted to make a good impression and stand out to the coaches. This led to a rough start to the match as the players struggled to gel, even against an equally experimental Italian team. After about 20 minutes, though, they began to settle down and find their rhythm. The defence took over in a way reminiscent of their 2018 Six Nations victory, while Joey Carbery and Luke McGrath took control of the game.
Obviously they will have much harder tests if they intend to win the World Cup, but if they can get their stars back on form, South Africa’s recent performances have shown just how effective a top defence can be, even against some of the most dangerous attacking teams.
During the Six Nations, I accused Italy of having too basic a gameplan to have success against Tier 1 Nations. Watching this match, I couldn’t think of anything else. This really came to a head for me when Callum Braley came on for his debut. As a regular last season for a Gloucester team that was great to watch in attack, he is used to a structured but varied offence. Soon after his introduction, I saw him bring the ball away from the ruck to the open side and look to slip the ball back to a runner coming between him and the breakdown… only to find he didn’t have any runner there!
Every single breakdown appeared to end with either a pick and go, a pass to a forward taking the ball (usually standing still) from the 9 or a pass to the fly half that would just see the ball shipped down the line. This was resulting in the Italians spending as much time going backwards on attack as they did going forwards, while one attack came to a dire end as flanker Giovanni Licata decided the best option was to kick the ball, only to slice it into the air.
The Italians are putting together a strong team, with great runners in the forwards and backs who can exploit the space, but they need to improve their variety in attack if they want to trouble a decent defence.
RWC2019 Winners & Losers
The Irish back 3 has some great depth, but aside from Jacob Stockdale, there are no real standouts at the moment. As such, a Man of the Match performance from Andrew Conway that saw him dominate his opposite number in the air and rack up 51 metres and a try will have gone a long way to earning him a spot on the plane. Luke McGrath also stood out to me as he did a good job of keeping his pack organised and linking well with the backs, while he was just an unfortunate stumble away from a try. For the Italians, Tommaso Benvenuti was one of the most dangerous men on the pitch despite little help in the centre, while Callum Braley set a good tempo after his introduction and brings a good level of top flight experience to the squad.
One player who will be very nervous following this match is Joey Carbery, who went off with an ankle injury. Luckily, the ankle isn’t broken but he now has to hope he can recover at a good enough rate to not be ruled out of the tournament. John Cooney must also be feeling pretty nervous after good performances by McGrath and Kieran Marmion (who was set as Conor Murray’s deputy before he got injured) in this match. For the Azzuri, Giovanni Licata did little to distinguish himself in a back row that it bursting with quality, while Giulio Bisegni really struggled to compete aerially against Conway and struggled to make an impact on the game in attack.
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