Round 3 of the 2022 edition of the Six Nations came to an end with a trip to Dublin to see Ireland host Italy. The Irish made a handful of changes with a match against England in the near future, but were soon ahead as an inside pass put Caelan Doris through a hole and his offload found hooker Dan Sheehan, who fed Joey Carbery for the opening try in less than 4 minutes. Italy were soon on the scoreboard after Edoardo Padovani blasted over a penalty from halfway, but found themselves playing a man after less than a quarter of the match down when Epalahame Faiva—on early after an injury to starting hooker Gianmarco Lucchesi—was red carded for a high tackle on Sheehan. A quirk of the rugby laws (that is absolutely bonkers and would be changed immediately if any of the big nations fell afoul of it) means that with nobody else in the Italian 23 able to play hooker, scrums would go uncontested (which must always be 8v8) but the Italians would be down to 13 (taking 2 men off but bringing on 1 replacement front row), and the Irish took advantage of the extra space for Jamison Gibson-Park to score, while fullback James Lowry went over on the half hour from the first phase after a scrum and Peter O’Mahony secured the bonus point just before half time. The Italians kept on fighting though, and Paolo Garbisi kicked a penalty to end the half down 24-6.
It took the Irish attack a while to get going after the break, but finally they got a series of phases of front foot ball and pulled the defense narrow, allowing Gibson-Park to throw a wide pass to James Lowe to cross out wide. With the game over as a competition, the replacements were coming on earlier than usual, and Jonathan Sexton marked his 55ᵗʰ minute introduction by immediately attacking a gap and offloading to Lowry for his second of the day. The Irish continued to struggle to pull away in quite the fashion one would expect, but when Ryan Baird charged down Alessandro Fusco’s box kick, there were no blue shirts in behind to stop him gathering the loose ball and going over for the try. But with just minutes remaining Braam Steyn was carded for a deliberate knock on that saw the Italians down to 12, and the Irish took advantage by going for the scrum and using the 3-man advantage in the back line to put Lowe over for a second try. There was time for another attack which saw Josh van der Flier held up over the line, but with time remaining for the goal line drop-out and a 3-man advantage, the Irish managed to send Kieron Treadwell over for one final try, with Sexton kicking the conversion for a 57-6 victory.
Ireland may have earned the bonus point by half time and come away with a comfortable victory, but they should be disappointed with this. With a 2-man advantage for an hour (including 5 minutes at the end with a 3-man advantage), they should have been winning by so much more.
While there were some huge individual performances in the Italian defence, with 2 men less and 3 props on the pitch, there was always going to be space, but Ireland did not do the work to find or create it, and far too often they ended up playing into the Italian pack and getting turned over, forcing the pass once a half-break was made rather than recycling to go again with quick ball, or getting white line fever and going alone when the pass was the better option.
Perhaps even more worrying was that Andy Farrell saw the need to bring Sexton on before the hour with a lead of just 23 points. While there were a couple of unfamiliar combinations out there, I can’t help feel that a team like France or even Ian Foster’s New Zealand would have found a way to turn this into a cricket score with such a numerical advantage.
A phrase I hear in rugby too often is that red cards ruin games. That is not true at all, but unfortunately this game was ruined as a result of the red card to Hame Faiva. Now I want to make clear first of all that the officials were all spot-on in the decision and did a great job of talking everything through with the teams. Unfortunately, it was a rarely-seen law from World Rugby that saw Italy further punished.
As Wayne Barnes details in this video, referees are provided with the above guidelines for when a scrum goes uncontested. Lucchesi’s early injury (he went off cradling his arm after just 5 minutes) is unfortunate as hooker is a specialist position and it is rare that you will have more than 2 trained hookers in a matchday 23. And that means that if anything happens to Hame Faiva in the remaining 75 minutes, Italy will be unable to field a trained hooker.
So when Faiva then went high and gave the referee no choice but to red card him, that is when everything went tits up. With uncontested scrums coming, Italy always had to sacrifice someone for a prop in order to keep the front row unit full of 3 specialist front rows, but per the table above, they also had to lose a second player for the rest of the match. And here is the problem.
The reason for this law makes sense, as the Italian scrum should be penalised for their hooker getting sent off, while this stops a team struggling in the scrum from pretending their last available front row is injured in order to go to uncontested scrums. But does this require 2 players to effectively be sent off? Being forced to field 3 props already harms a defence when you consider that most hookers these days are like an extra back row and super mobile. By the team already having to take a player off for the replacement front row and the numerical advantage in the back line, is this not already creating enough of an advantage for the opposition team? Or perhaps is it time to look at something I have suggested previously about having larger matchday squads (say 30 for example, with 5 or 6 specialist front rows on the bench) but still the same number of replacements allowed per match (or less), which would allow more flexibility so that games are not decided by a team having to play someone out of position…