Friday 3 February 2023 Dublin: 10°C
# Winning Start
5 talking points after Joe Schmidt's Ireland beat Italy in Rome
The game plan, Ian Keatley, Ireland’s centres, scope for improvement and a patched-together back row.

Murray Kinsella reports from Stadio Olimpico

IRELAND BEAT ITALY 26-3 at Stadio Olimpico in Rome this afternoon, and you can read our full match report on the Six Nations encounter here.

A plan well executed

It may not have been the prettiest of victories or games, but the sense is that Ireland perfectly executed the plan Joe Schmidt gave them. Like in Dublin last year, the opening 60 minutes or so were about wearing down the Italian defence.

Tommy O'Donnell runs in their second try Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

Schmidt might have liked another try or two, rather than ending the game with his side defending their own tryline, but scores for Conor Murray and Tommy O’Donnell came as expected in the closing quarter.

Ireland’s first-half tactics revolved around kicking to pressure the Italians, taking three points whenever they could and simply limiting the home team’s access into the fixture. Mission accomplished.

The third quarter was about stretching the Italian defence more, asking the forwards to pass rather than take contact every time and allowing the likes of Simon Zebo, Jared Payne and Robbie Henshaw to threaten. Mission accomplished.

Finally, Schmidt would have told his men that the tries would come after 60 minutes or so had elapsed. Mission accomplished and Ireland move on to France next weekend.

O’Mahony in a leader’s role

Sergio Parisse and Peter O'Mahony Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

The late blow of losing Sean O’Brien threatened to unsettle Ireland and their back row plans, but Munster’s Peter O’Mahony stepped up to deliver a hugely mature performance to lead the side.

Jordi Murphy had a strong outing on his first Six Nations start, while Tommy O’Donnell covered for O’Brien effectively, scoring that remarkable individual try late in the second half.

O’Mahony got through a heavy ball-carrying workload with 15, but the match stats confirm that Murphy did even more work with 17. It was a patched-together, unfamiliar back row for Schmidt’s side, although that was not apparent in their performance levels.

Keatley composure

Ian Keatley kicks Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

Much of the build up to this fixture was dominated by the discussion around who Ireland would pick at out-half. Italy themselves admitted to surprise at Schmidt opting for Keatley, but the Munster man vindicated his head coach’s call.

After two nervous kicks from hand early on, Keatley settled into the game, showing encouraging mettle from the tee with a smooth striking action. Ireland’s attack perhaps needed more direction from the out-half at times in the first half, but Keatley’s passing was sharp and he also carried hard at the defence on occasion.

Like Ireland, it was not a perfect outing from Keatley and he will have learned much from his Six Nations debut. Johnny Sexton seems likely to return for next weekend’s meeting with France, but Keatley showed up well in Rome.

Room for improvement

Conor Murray celebrates his try with teammates Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Joe Schmidt is all about getting better game-to-game and the forthcoming week leaves plenty of scope for improvement. It goes without saying that Ireland will need to show more to beat Philippe Saint-André’s France in Dublin.

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Attacking-wise, the second half was more encouraging from Ireland, but even within the relatively low-risk nature of the first-half plan, there must be room for more invention. Only when Zebo began to get on the ball and Ireland’s forwards used tip-on and linking passes did Ireland begin to break the Italians down.

We cannot expect Ireland to cut teams open from the offset of every fixture, but the sense is that there is still more to come from them with ball in hand. Wales have shown that an overly-predictable attack leads only to defeat.

Ireland have the component parts and ideas to attack with adventure and verve, something we may see more of in the coming weeks.

Henshaw and Payne gel

Sergio Parisse and Peter O'Mahony Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

There were no breakout moments for either of Ireland’s centres, and indeed they had errors like every other player on the pitch, but it was a promising second outing for the Irish pair.

Henshaw positively bristled with energy every time he touched the ball, showing power with a number of direct carries from set-piece possession. Payne was similarly used as a straight-up ball carrier in the middle of the pitch, willingly running into defensive bodies.

The Ulster man looked far more dangerous when given time on the ball, allowing him to work favourable angles and take the contact on his own terms.

This was just game two for Ireland’s latest centre combination, but already both men have shown that they are built for international rugby.

What did you make of Ireland’s win? What were the standout features of the game in your opinion?

Conor Murray and Tommy O’Donnell scored Ireland’s first tries of the 2015 Six Nations

Ireland’s Six Nations title defence off to winning start against Italy

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