Ireland’s quest for the Grand Slam continued in Rome as they looked to take on Italy. A fixture that would often see a team of fringe players turning out in green, Andy Farrell chose to limit the changes this year, with the most notable selections being those of Craig Casey and Ross Byrne in the halfback positions, while Italy welcomed back fly half Paolo Garbis from injury. And it took only 70 seconds for the action to get going a big carry from Bundee Aki kickstarting a break that saw James Lowe just fail to keep control as he tried to dot down in the corner; Ange Capuozo’s tackle just causing enough of an issue. However it was just a slight delay as Aki released Lowe down the blind side again just moments later, and the wing found his captain James Ryan inside for the early opener. The Italians soon hit back though, and when Loreno Cannone charged through the Irish 22, Stephen Varney took advantage of the quick recycle to snipe over from close range, Garbisi’s conversion putting the hosts ahead. The quick response appeared to lift the hosts even more, with Cannone’s next carry even more impressive, only for Andrew Porter to end the attack with a timely turnover. And the missed opportunity came back to haunt them on 13 minutes as Bundee Aki was put through a gap on first phase off a lineout, before releasing Hugo Keenan to jink and spin his way through a couple of tackles on his way to the try line. A Garbisi penalty cut the lead, but when he then lost possession trying to play out from their 2, Ireland worked the numbers to allow James Lowe to draw the last defender and feed Aki on his inside to end a thrilling first quarter with another try. And when referee Mike Adamson once again highlighted the way Italy are consistently refereed against by penalising Niccolò Cannone for holding his ground and being ran into by Craig Casey, Ireland kicked to the corner, only for their attempt to go through the phases being foiled by a blatant obstrucion by Josh van der Flier and Andrew Porter pushed for the line. His next blatant infringement went unpunished though, and when Lamaro was penalised for offside just a few phases later, Ireland again went to the corner and constant pressure around the fringes of the rucks—involving a number of latchers going off their feet without being penalised—eventually created the space to send Mack Hansen over in the corner for the bonus point try, though it came at the cost of Finlay Bealham. But as Ireland went looking for a fifth on the stroke of half time, Pierre Bruno read the play and forced himself into the space ahead of Byrne to intercept Bundee Aki and go the length, Garbisi adding the extras for a 17-24 halftime score.
The second half saw the teams fairly evenly matched early on, though Adamson was favouring the visitors at the scrum, but as Ireland looked to strike on 51 minutes with a 5m lineout, Federico Ruzza was able to get up ahead of James Ryan for a crucial steal. And Ireland were lucky things didn’t get worse for them moments later as Mike Adamson chose to spare Stuart McCloskey a spell in the sin bin and just give a penalty for a high tackle on Capuozzo. As the hour mark approached, Garbisi kicked a penalty to cut the deficit to 4, though the Azzurri were let of moments later as Ireland again broke down the blind side, only for Bundee Aki to lose control of the ball as Niccolò Cannone just brought him down short of the line. Byrne extended the lead to 7 with a penalty as the game entered the final 5 minutes, but the Italians responded positively, stretching the Irish defence, only for Juan Ignacio Brex’s kick to the corner to just evade Ruzza. And that wasted opportunity was highlighted as Ireland’s next onslaught ended with Conor Murray sending Hansen over for his second of the afternoon. The hosts continued to put pressure on the Irish defence, but were unable to add to their score, and were lucky not to concede at the death as James Lowe intercepted Tommaso Allan’s pass, only to knock on as Alessandro Fusco and Luca Morisi tried to bundle him into touch; an exciting match ending in a 20-34 victory for the hosts.
Italy are now very clearly a team who can hold their own at this level. But they continue to struggle to get the results as they find themselves consistently on the wrong side of the officials. And I do not mean that they are ill disciplined, I mean that the referees referee them to a completely different standard than they do any other team in the tournament.
Whether it is corruption or letting their unconscious biases take over, Italy consistently find themselves being penalised for offences that their opponents are allowed to keep committing with no sanction. Would you see Ireland penalised for what even the referee has just deemed no foul? Of course not, but Niccolò Cannone is. Stuart McCloskey committed numerous high tackles, including one on Ange Capuozzo that was potentially worthy of a yellow card on it’s own—but only one even resulted in a penalty. Throughout the game, a number of penalties against the Azzurri or moments of brilliance from Ireland were preceded just phases earlier by a blatant Irish offence being completely ignored.
And it’s not just the officials, as the rhetoric used by the commentators and most also paints a picture to those reliant on their insight that suggests Ireland are well-disciplined and Italy not, which is exacerbated even more by the inability (or more likely refusal) of either the BBC or ITV to get an Italian pundit/commentator, despite the other nation—even France—being represented as part of the broadcast crew. *At this point, I must just take a minute to credit Sam Warburton, who ended the Wales v England match by saying how much Italy have proven themselves to him over the last year, sadly very few pundits can match the level of quality he brings to the broadcasts.*
And here is the problem for the Tier 2 teams. If Italy—considered a Tier 1 nation—is treated this one-sidedly against other Tier 1 nations, what hope does a Tier 2 team have of being given a fair crack at the big boys. Officials and broadcasters need to find an answer quickly, as otherwise they are just holding back the growth of the game.
If Ireland want to win the Rugby World Cup, they desperately need Garry Ringrose to stay fit.
The Leinster outside centre burst onto the scene and was immediately discussed as the successor to Brian O’Driscoll, and such was that early hype for him, that he goes somewhat under the radar now when discussing the best centres currently playing, but he is firmly in the top 5.
While it was his attacking skill that was often highlighted in his early years, where he really excels now is his defensive input, as he read the game so well and picks the right moments to blitz up for the big tackle and when to hold off, and always seems to be in the right place to make a tackle.
With him pulling out late, Ireland were left with Bundee Aki and Stuart McCloskey to form a partnership, and while they looked dangerous in attack, they are both 12s by trade, so lack the experience of defending further out. And with the variety of players and ways to attack it, the 13 channel is arguably one of the most difficult to defend in rugby. It was noticeable the success that Italy had by attacking this channel, as the midfield was not setting correctly, and this was then leaving the wings with multiple options in defence, to the point that they could rarely cover all attacking options with any one action.
Robbie Henshaw can do a solid job at 13, but is more often used at 12. So if you assume that these will be the 4 centres Andy Farrell takes to France, he only has one specialist 13. And when you face the top teams, you need the reliability that a player like Ringrose gives you.
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