Three from Three

Ireland's Grand Slam bid rolls on with bonus-point win over exciting Italy

The first half in Rome was wild and Ireland had to hold their nerve in the second.

Italy 20

Ireland 34

THIS WAS NO walk in the park. Far from it.

A thrilling Six Nations encounter ended with Ireland having secured their third bonus-point win from three. The Grand Slam bid rolls on.

But this was an altogether different match than what Ireland have been used to in the past against Italy. At times in a fraught second half, Ireland boss Andy Farrell’s heart was surely in his mouth. It wasn’t until Mack Hansen’s 71st-minute try that Ireland fans could relax. It was a magnificent game-sealing try.

The Italians were excellent in defeat and contributed superbly to a sensational first half that featured six tries.

hugo-keenan-celebrates-scoring-their-second-try-with-craig-casey Craig Casey celebrates with Hugo Keenan. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Ireland had their bonus point in the bag by the half-time break after James Ryan, Hugo Keenan, Bundee Aki, and Hansen all dotted down but the game was well and truly still alive at 24-17 heading into the second half.

Given the improvements that Italy have made and the long injury list Ireland are dealing with, Farrell should go home as a happy man after seeing his side continue their tilt at the Slam. They’ll have learned plenty about managing the momentum of games.

There was more misfortune on the injury front as tighthead prop Finlay Bealham limped off in the first half with a knee issue, meaning Ulster man Tom O’Toole enjoyed a good 45-minute stint off the bench.

Ireland’s biggest problem in-game was their defence as we saw clear signs of a lack of cohesion in midfield after Garry Ringrose was forced to withdraw through injury just yesterday. But there was plenty of good stuff from Ireland. Making their first Six Nations starts, halfbacks Craig Casey and Ross Byrne did well, while Josh van der Flier put in a monstrous performance in the back row.

Ireland weren’t at their slick best on a consistent enough basis but five tries were deserved reward for their intent and ambition in attack, with classy passing and offloading prominent in several of their scores.

The reality is that Italy are good now. No longer can teams come to the Stadio Olimpico and take wins for granted. Farrell’s men had to fight hard here and they come away with the victory that means their trophy ambitions are still intact. With their injury issues set to ease before they travel to Scotland in two weekends’ time, Ireland are still on track.

bundee-aki-scores-their-third-try-despite-stephen-varney Bundee Aki scored for Ireland in the first half. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

They started the game at breakneck speed, with James Lowe close to scoring in the second minute after Aki’s clever short pass sent van der Flier on a linebreak before he shifted the ball to Keenan to send Lowe hurtling into the left corner. But the TMO review showed separation between hand and ball as Lowe attempted to finish.

Farrell’s men were over just a minute later, though. This time, Casey’s excellent pass and Aki’s brilliant one-handed offload freed Lowe along the touchline and he passed back inside for captain Ryan to gallop over.

The Italians’ response was spectacular as returning out-half Paolo Garbisi skipped a lovely pass for number eight Lorenzo Cannone to sear through the Irish defence and past Aki’s tackle attempt. Though Cannone was hauled down metres out, scrum-half Stephen Varney sniped over on the next phase. Garbisi converted for a 7-5 home lead.

The relentless pace continued as Ireland nabbed their second try in the 14th minute, crisp passes from Byrne and Hansen on a lineout attack sending Aki into a hole. He drew and passed to Keenan, who somehow rode tackle efforts from Pierre Bruno and Garbisi to finish. 

Italy closed the gap with three points from Garbisi’s boot when Hansen was penalised for a late tackle on Tommaso Menoncello after Capuozzo’s sublime pass out of trouble deep in his own half.

mack-hansen-scores-their-fourth-try-despite-edoardo-padovani Mack Hansen dots down for Ireland. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

But Ireland had their third score inside the first quarter. Lowe intercepted a Garbisi pass to spark the passage before Stuart McCloskey put van der Flier away on an other break, with the flanker finding Lowe outside and the left wing then popping back inside for Aki to scorch over. Byrne converted from wide on the left for a 19-10 lead.

With the fans getting full value for their money and enjoying the occasion even more with a Mexican wave, Ireland did have a couple of sloppy moments in the next 10 minutes or so.

They gave up a scrum penalty at one stage, while van der Flier was pinged for obstruction ahead of ball-carrier Andrew Porter on one visit to the 22. But Ireland kept the pressure on and had their bonus-point score in the 35th minute.

They used a Leicester Tigers five-metre tap penalty play to send Jack Conan swinging back to the right after a direct carry from hooker Rónan Kelleher first up. The ball was moved into the shortside and McCloskey passed for Hansen to score in the right corner.

Ireland lost Bealham just after that score, the Connacht man having tried to play on with strapping around his knee, and then they finished the half in disappointing fashion.

First, Hansen knocked-on in the 22 after an inside ball from Casey and then they were picked off by the Italians for a try with the clock in the red. To be fair, it was a brave and brilliant read by left wing Bruno, who anticipated Aki’s no-look pass out the back towards Byrne. Bruno was waiting and sprinted home from a good 60 metres out.

pierre-bruno-celebrates-with-ange-capuozzo-and-juan-ignacio-brex-after-scoring Italy celebrate Pierre Bruno's intercept try. Giuseppe Fama / INPHO Giuseppe Fama / INPHO / INPHO

Garbisi’s conversion meant the Italians were back to 24-17 on the scoreboard and they started the second half in threatening fashion with a spell in Ireland’s 22 that eventually concluded with O’Toole winning a scrum penalty.

Van der Flier soon pulled off a choke tackle turnover on Italy’s 10-metre line and another scrum penalty win followed as O’Toole and the Irish pack ground their way forward. It earned them an extended visit into Italian territory but they came away empty-handed as Niccolo Cannone stole their five-metre lineout.

The Italian crowd were fired up by a high tackle from McCloskey on fullback Ange Capouzzo and they had reason to cheer in the 57th minute as Garbisi slammed over a penalty after Porter had obstructed centre Juan Ignacio Brex off the ball. Ireland still led 24-20 but this was a real battle now. The tension rose.

Farrell’s side thought they had given themselves more breathing room soon after when Aki crossed in the right corner but a TMO review showed that he had knocked-on just before reaching out to ground the ball. It meant the good build-up work from Byrne and Hansen was unrewarded.

The game was truly in the balance as we entered the final quarter but Farrell would have breathed a sigh of relief as replacement lock Ryan Baird won a huge breakdown turnover penalty to allow Byrne to kick three points in the 65th minute.

The stress levels would have risen swiftly again though as Baird knocked-on in his own half to hand the Italians another attacking chance. 

finlay-bealham-goes-off-injuried Ireland lost Finlay Bealham to injury. Giuseppe Fama / INPHO Giuseppe Fama / INPHO / INPHO

Italy surged into the 22 up the right and then swung back to the left where Brex’s poor diagonal kick into the in-goal area just bounced dead before lock Cannone could gather it. It was a big chance missed and another moment of huge relief for Ireland.

They finally put the game to bed in the 71st minute with a determined, gritty 19-phase passage of attack in which Doris and Baird featured prominently before sub scrum-half Murray sniped into a sliver of space and brilliantly offloaded inside for Hansen, who slalomed past the last man to finish.

Lowe nearly scored with the last play of the game after an intercept but it would have been cruel to Italy to concede again. They lost again but this was a proper contest.

Italy scorers:

Tries: Stephen Varney, Pierre Bruno

Conversions: Paolo Garbisi [2 from 2]

Penalties: Paolo Garbisi [2 from 2]

Ireland scorers:

Tries: James Ryan, Hugo Keenan, Bundee Aki, Mack Hansen [2]

Conversions: Ross Byrne [3 from 4]

Penalties: Ross Byrne [1 from 1]

ITALY: Ange Capuozzo; Edoardo Padovani, Juan Ignacio Brex, Tommaso Menoncello (Luca Morisi ’78), Pierre Bruno; Paolo Garbisi (Tommaso Allan ’73), Stephen Varney (Alessandro Fusco ’68); Danilo Fischetti (Federico Zani ’61), Giacomo Nicotera (HIA – Luca Bigi ’32, permanent ’61), Simone Ferrari (Marco Riccioni ’47); Niccolo Cannone (Edoardo Iachizzi), Federico Ruzza; Sebastian Negri, Michele Lamaro (captain), Lorenzo Cannone (Giovanni Pettinelli ’64).

IRELAND: Hugo Keenan; Mack Hansen, Bundee Aki, Stuart McCloskey (Jimmy O’Brien ’73), James Lowe; Ross Byrne (Jack Crowley ’78), Craig Casey (Conor Murray ’65); Andrew Porter (Dave Kilcoyne ’65), Rónan Kelleher (Dan Sheehan ’57), Finlay Bealham (Tom O’Toole ’36); Iain Henderson (Ryan Baird ’53), James Ryan (captain); Caelan Doris, Josh van der Flier, Jack Conan (Peter O’Mahony ’57).

Referee: Mike Adamson [Scotland]. 

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