Almost 8 months after the 2020 Six Nations came to an early end due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the competition resumed today with Ireland’s Round 4 match against Italy.
The Italians were the clear underdogs going into the game but had the brighter start as Seb Negri burs through the defence and into the 22 before passing to Marcello Violi. The scrum half was brought down just short of the line, but a cynical penalty from his opposite number Conor Murray saw the Munsterman sent to the sin bin, while debutant fly half Paolo Garbisi bisected the posts with the penalty. The Irish soon hit back though and a series of phases on the Italian line saw CJ Stander cross for the opening try despite them still being a man down, Jonathan Sexton nailing the converson and a penalty soon after. Like last night’s match between Scotland and Georgia, the game soon settled into a tense affair for the rest of the opening half hour, until Leinster wing Hugo Keenan was sent over in the corner for a try on debut. It looked like he had another just moments later after being set up by a great counterattacking run from fullback Jacob Stockdale, but the try was ruled out for an obstruction by James Ryan that allowed Stockdale to break through the defensive line. The Italians used the resultant penalty to set themselves in the Irish 22, but after Caelan Dorris won a turnover at the breakdown, the Irish countered and Keenan won the chase of Conor Murray’s kick for his second try of the game, Sexton kicking the extras for a 24-3 halftime score.
The Azzurri tightened things up at the start of the second half and began to get more possession, but still struggled to make anything of it, but when Ireland got the ball back, Sexton found his miss pass intercepted by Edoardo Padovani, who dotted down under the posts. The Irish soon hit back, with a driving maul resulting in a try on debut for flanker Will Connors, while Sexton crashed over for another try just minutes later to ensure the win was guaranteed with 15 minutes remaining. The Irish knew that they were set to go top of the table with this result, but with a trip to France still to come, it was important to score every point they could, and after turning over the ball deep in the Italian half, they spread the ball while to put Bundee Aki over in the corner, before scoring their 7ᵗʰ try entering the final minute as a rolling maul propelled Dave Heffernan over the line. Replacement fly half Ross Byrne chose to take a quick conversion to force the restart in the hopes of 1 more try, but this ended up proving costly as the Irish knocked on the high ball and after a number of phases in midfield, Garbisi broke through a gap and made it over for a consolation try, kicking the conversion for a final score of 50-17.
Looking to the future
One look at today’s Italy line-up – or the wider squad as a whole – will tell you that Franco Smith is already looking ahead to RWC2023 by selecting a younger and less experienced squad who will be coming into their prime com the World Cup. Fullback Jayden Hayward was the only player in the 23 in his 30s (with Leonardo Ghiraldini the only other one in the wider squad), while 7 of the 23 involved were 24 or younger, including 20-year-old fly half Garbisi. I also wouldn’t have been surprised to see 19-year-old scrum half Stephen Varney involved in the game following some scintillating displays for Gloucester since the restart, only for him to suffer a positive COVID-19 test.
There is the short-term risk that this lack of experience may make it harder for Italy to win games, but these players are coming in off some success with the U20s and improving performances from the Pro14 franchises, so this freshness may actually turn out to be exactly what the team needs right now. If nothing else though, they will be an experienced unit come 2023 and the World Cup.
Crash ball Canna
Carlo Canna is a talented fly half and playmaker. What he is not is an obvious pick to be a crash ball 12, and yet that is how he sees himself being used by Franco Smith. Fair play to Canna, he puts in the effort in this role, but (as you would expect) it is with limited success. This leads to Italy having to play with a deep line in order to try to make it to the outside, but when they are then caught in midfield, they are in danger due to most of their players now being ahead of the ball.
Italy have some wonderful ball carriers, especially in the forwards, and yet it is so rare to see them getting a chance to run at the defence outside 1or 2 men from the breakdown, where the defence is still tightly grouped so a line-break is unlikely. You just need to see Jake Polledri running riot for Gloucester or Seb Negri’s break in the opening minutes of this game to see just how dangerous this team can be if they are playing the right way.
Franco Smith needs to make a decision what he wants at 12. If he wants a second playmaker to help take the pressure off Garbisi, then he needs to have the forwards getting the ball in wider positions and have the blindside winger and Luca Morisi attacking the line more often. And if he wants his 12 to be a North to South runner, then he needs to change the personnel he is selecting.
Back row balance
Ireland went for a very different looking back row for this match, but it looked highly effective and I would not be surprised to see them go for something similar again.
While CJ Stander remained at 8, he was given some carrying support by playing Caelan Doris at 6. What is great about this pairing is that they are both different styles of carrier, with Stander making the hard yards from a high number of carries (74m from 21 carries – just over 3.5 metres per carry) while Doris is more of an effective carrier in open play (6 carriers for 33m – 5.5 metres per carry).
More than that, though, the selectin of Will Connors at 7 seemed to suggest that Andy Farrell knew he had plenty of turnover specialists throughout the team, so instead brought in a player who, much like Dan Lydiate used to do for Wales, would just tackle all day long, allowing players like Stander, Doris, Cian Healy and Tadhg Beirne to get in over the ball and make the turnover.
There will of course be tougher tests than Italy, but I think that Ireland should test this balance again in their upcoming matches.