Billy Stickland/INPHO Irish fans before the game.

'To have 25,000-plus Irish people here today was incredible'

Ireland lock James Ryan was proud to lead the side in front of the brilliant travelling support.

WHEN THE FIELDS of Athenry sparked up loudly in the first half, you could have been forgiven for thinking Ireland were the ones playing at home.

There were thousands of Irish fans at the Stadio Olimpico to roar their team on to a 34-20 bonus-point win and they contributed strongly to an excellent atmosphere for what was a highly entertaining game.

The Italian fans were up for it too, their excitement levels rising every time Ange Capuozzo touched the ball. They booed in pantomime fashion any time Ireland erred with their discipline and they bellowed in delighted at the two Italian tries.

There were Mexican waves as early as the first half on what was a festival-like occasion in Rome. Those out on the pitch were grateful to have such strong Irish support in the stands.

“It was amazing,” said Ireland captain James Ryan after his side’s win. “Someone was saying the attendance was 51,000 and I’d say at least half of them were Irish. To have 25,000-plus Irish people here today was incredible.

“Even over the last couple of days, you got a real sense that there was a huge amount of Irish supporters here. You’d go for a walk around the hotel and there were so many around. We really appreciate it, it makes a massive difference to us.

“It was very special to be able to lead my country out today with such great support there.”

a-view-of-the-large-amount-of-irish-fans-at-the-game Dan Sheridan / INPHO There was a huge Irish crowd in Rome. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

It was nervier than some of the Irish supporters would have hoped for as Andy Farrell’s team found themselves in a real battle.

There was one particularly fraught moment in the second half when Italy centre Juan Ignacio Brex’s kick pass just evaded the grasp of the chasing lock Federico Ruzza in Ireland’s in-goal area. A score there could have seen Italy level the game at 27-27.

Instead, Ireland built towards their brilliant final try when a sustained passage of attack concluded with sub scrum-half Conor Murray sniping and offloading to send Mack Hansen scorching past Capuzzo to finish.

It was a happy ending to a match that saw Ireland repeatedly stretched.

“It was a tough game,” said Ryan. “I think defensively it was probably one of the toughest performances we have had for a while. You can see how they have come on.

“They play a lovely brand of rugby and they like to play the ball a lot. They’re ambitious in attack and play inside their own half at times. So it was tough for us. We had to dig in.”

This was Ryan’s seventh time captaining Ireland from the start and though his family were unable to travel after his father came down with the flu this week, he took pride in how his team overcame the real challenge posed by Italy.

“I enjoyed the week and my job was pretty easy today because there’s guys like Hendy [Iain Henderson] there, a great leader,” said Ryan.

ireland-fans-before-the-game Billy Stickland / INPHO A group of Irish supporters outside Stadio Olimpico. Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

“Ross [Byrne] is a really steady presence at out-half, guys like Pete [O'Mahony] coming off the bench. It made my life a bit easier.”

Ryan also praised the impact of the Irish replacements, including Ryan Baird.

“Bairdo came on and brought brilliant impact off the bench, a big turnover and then that lineout five metres from the line,” he said. “The other boys who came on did really well as well.

“That’s one of the strengths of us as a group, the squad depth. You see some of the guys who have been in and out of the team, like Tadhg [Furlong] and how big a player he is for us. He pulls out of the Wales game and you look at how well Finlay [Bealham] has gone in the last couple of games. So that’s just an example of the group now. There’s real strong squad depth.”

But Ryan won’t travel back to Ireland tomorrow completely satisfied with Ireland’s showing in Rome.

He knows there is more to come in the final two rounds of the Six Nations against Scotland and England.

“I don’t think today was an 80-minute performance. We made it quite difficult for ourselves at times, particularly in the first half.

“But that’s still a positive for us in a way because we’re three from three, top of the table, but there’s still a lot more for us. We have a good two weeks to get ready for Scotland and we have to be better.”

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