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Ireland struggle, Italy excite and more talking points from Olympic Park

Joe Schmidt’s men made too many errors and struggled with the Italian intensity.

Murray Kinsella reports from Olympic Park

IRELAND BEAT ITALY 16-9 this evening in their third Pool D fixture to qualify for the World Cup quarter-finals. Read our match report here.

Ireland struggle

After the relatively slick performances against Romania and Canada, this was a very, very different test for Ireland. Put under intense pressure by Jacques Brunel’s Italy, the back-to-back Six Nations champions looked far from impressive.

Peter O'Mahony is yellow carded by referee Jerome Garces Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Errors inside the Italian 22, poor play around the fringes of rucks in attack, a narrowness in defence that was slightly alarming at times and the majorly disappointing discipline will be chief among the frustrations for Schmidt.

The preventable penalties given up to the Italians gave Brunel’s men what Ireland term as ‘access points’ into the game, the opportunities to launch an attacking game that certainly appeared to surprise Ireland.

Avoidable mistakes at crucial times, most notably in the nervous final quarter, were unlike Ireland too, and allowed Italy to grow and grow in belief. As late as the 78th minute, a knock-on from Paul O’Connell allowed Italy to threaten on the counter.

There was a lack of composure in Ireland’s performance, nowhere more obvious than in O’Connell’s increasingly cranky dealings with Jerome Garces and the late mishit penalty from Jonny Sexton.

France certainly haven’t been the most impressive team in the World Cup, but Philippe Saint-André will easily pick out many faults in Ireland’s performance here. Sexton scrambling the ball off the pitch at the death said it all.

Italy’s phenomenal effort

There weren’t too many of us who expected this from the Italians, but Jacques Brunel’s side were excellent for long periods of the game.

Their second-half effort was especially impressive, as they thundered into tackles, stretched Ireland’s defence with their handling skills and generally brought an intensity that Schmidt’s men lacked.

A view of Olympic Stadium during today's game Source: James Crombie/INPHO

After a disappointing display against Canada in their second pool game, this was a very different Italy. Clearly they had their motivation levels at a peak, but the technical quality of the performance shouldn’t be overlooked as we praise the physical prowess.

Simone Favaro in the number seven shirt delivered a breathtaking individual showing with his captain Sergio Parisse clearly short of his full match fitness, while scrum-half Edoardo Gori was full of attacking energy.

The Italians will wonder what might have been had Josh Furno been able to finish in the left corner after a superb attack in the 48th minutes. Ireland can thank Peter O’Mahony – excellent apart from his yellow card – for a remarkable try-saving tackle, but Furno should have scored.

With the scoreline at 10-6 at that point, it was a huge moment. On the evidence of this display, the Italians should finish their pool campaign with a strong win over Romania in Exeter.

Superb second row

We’re quickly going to run out of superlatives for Iain Henderson. The 23-year-old was exceptional yet again in the Ireland second row, while captain O’Connell was prominent around the pitch too.

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Iain Henderson with Edoardo Gori Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Henderson’s sheer physical impact is staggering, with his choke tackle turnovers, gainline-busting carries, plough-like clearouts and counter-rucking, and straight-up big hitting in defence all outstanding again.

O’Connell got through a similarly large workload for Schmidt’s side, carrying well around the fringes and making several important tackles in the frontline. Devin Toner finished out the game in Henderson’s place, but Ireland’s starting second row was superb.

The one concern was a maul that failed to make an impact in the first half, the missed chance from five metres out after Ireland declined to kick for the posts just before the break being particularly frustrating.

Ireland’s second row are not the only cogs in the maul, but it must get better from close range.

Better a test than none at all

Schmidt would never have wanted to see a performance as inaccurate as this from his side, but he will be the first to acknowledge that the Italians were superb throughout. Still, a better team than Italy would have beaten this Ireland side in Olympic Park.

Simon Zebo celebrates with try scorer Keith Earls Source: James Crombie/INPHO

With the pool decider against France in a week’s time, Ireland have a huge amount of work to do. In an odd way, it’s preferable that Schmidt’s men had to struggle against the Italians, rather than recording another straightforward win as against Romania and Canada.

Every other contender in the tournament has been pushed hard in their opening fixtures and now Ireland have been truly tested. There were some worrying aspects in how they reacted to the mental stress, but Ireland have proven themselves as winners in the last two years under Schmidt.

The famously demanding Kiwi has plenty to work with in the coming sevens days.

Individual work-ons

The problems for Ireland were collective in Olympic Park, and much of the Italians’ best work made Schmidt’s side look poor, but there were also a number of disappointing individual outings for key Ireland players.

Robbie Henshaw offloads Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Sexton was short of the dominant start to the World Cup he made against Canada, while scrum-half Conor Murray looked uncharacteristically indecisive on the ball, taking a number of poor options. Both halfbacks are better players than on show here.

In the back row, Sean O’Brien powered into contact but might regret not getting a firmer grip on the breakdown after some of his first-half efforts there. More positively, Robbie Henshaw was excellent on his return from a hamstring injury.

The offload for Keith Earls’ try was delightful, while he carried and hit hard. It was an Ireland performance that came up short overall though, and many of Schmidt’s players will be critical of themselves on reviewing the game. 

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Murray Kinsella

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