Rampant attack, Connacht's proud day and more Ireland talking points

Simon Zebo was excellent at fullback for Ireland, while Joe Schmidt got exactly what he wanted.

IRELAND HAMMERED ITALY 58-15 at the Aviva Stadium to record their first win of the 2016 Six Nations campaign.

Read our match report here.

Schmidt gets what he wants

After a streak of four games without a win, Ireland desperately needed a confidence boost with a hugely demanding run of fixtures looming ahead in 2016.

Jared Payne celebrtes his try with Robbie Henshaw and Andrew Trimble Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

Challenges against South Africa, New Zealand and Australia will be on a different planet to that which Joe Schmidt’s men faced in Dublin this afternoon, but this ideally-timed fixture served its purpose.

Ireland needed to regain some of the confidence they had lost during their difficult recent run, and that much was certainly achieved both with the margin of victory and the manner in which Ireland scored their nine tries.

With Scotland coming to town next weekend, there is further opportunity for Schmidt’s squad to build their way towards what will be a demanding tour of South Africa in June. Going some way towards repeating today’s effort against Scotland would be hugely positive.

The people get what they want

The offloads, oh those beautiful offloads. Simon Zebo’s stunning one-handed, catflap effort in the build-up to Jamie Heaslip’s first try stands out in this department, though there were a few other strong examples.

Simon Zebo offloads the ball Morgan Treacy / INPHO Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

That try was one of the most aesthetically pleasing in the Schmidt era, as Ireland broke out from deep after a Johnny Sexton loop play off blood replacement Fergus McFadden.

Zebo, Jared Payne, Sexton, Andrew Trimble and McFadden all had further touches before Heaslip finished well. It was the highlight of a strong attacking performance from Ireland, with Sexton running a varied phase play strategy well.

Italy struggled badly as Ireland painted a different picture for the defence on each phase with a blend of switch plays, passing forward pods, inside passes, width and forward surges off Conor Murray’s arcing runs.

The likes of Sean Cronin and McFadden only added to the fun off the bench.

Italy struggle

This season has seen the questions over Italy’s place in the Six Nations grow louder than before as they have struggled in Jacques Brunel’s final campaign as head coach. The sooner Conor O’Shea gets in to sort this mess out, the better.

Sergio Parisse dejected after conceeding another try Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

The Italians started poorly and got worse as the minutes ticked by in Dublin. A 25-3 lead at the interval told us that Ireland were heading for a cricket score and Brunel’s men simply couldn’t live with them in the second half.

Their defensive organisation was very poor, while they were largely profligate with their rare opportunities to build attacking pressure in the Ireland half.

David Odiete did dot down for a try in the right corner as Ireland briefly lost focus heading towards the final quarter and Leonardo Sarto added a second, but those were merely slight speed bumps for Schmidt’s side.

Proud day for Connacht

They probably didn’t have time to reflect on it out on the pitch, but Robbie Henshaw, Kieran Marmion, Nathan White, Ultan Dillane and Finlay Bealham will enjoy their part in making history this evening.

Kieran Marmion, Nathan White, Finlay Bealham, Ultan Dillane and Robbie Henshaw celebrate Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

The five Connacht men were on the pitch all at once on a proud day for the western province. Bealham only got his debut opportunity after Cian Healy was ruled out, but this is an utterly deserved feat for Pat Lam’s province.

Their Pro12 form has been the shining light of the Irish rugby season up to this point and they also have a Challenge Cup quarter-final away to Grenoble to look forward to.

Henshaw was excellent in a direct performance for Ireland against Italy, copping a bloody blow to the head for his troubles, while Marmion added tempo off the bench and propping pair White and Bealham were solid. Dillane is one of the brightest prospects in the country, and again demonstrated his handling skill.

Lam and his men will continue to work hard out west and their Ireland representation may grow as their results and performances keep impressing.

Zebo shows his attacking class

In truth, we’re going to have to accept that Jared Payne is not going to end up as Ireland’s fullback under Joe Schmidt, certainly not this season.

Simon Zebo with Leonardo Sarto Zebo was excellent in attack. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Zebo has made himself the clear second-choice at 15 behind Rob Kearney, but the Munster man has the class to genuinely challenge the Leinster man, who has been established as Schmidt’s go-to fullback for years now.

It must be said that Zebo was not tested defensively in the slightest by the Italians this afternoon and was attacking against a poor defence, but his performance was still outstanding.

His comfort at stepping into first receiver is of real value, while his vision allows him to consistently pick out gaps or at least weak shoulders when he carries himself. The aforementioned offload is typical of his high skill level, while his passing game is among the best in this Ireland squad.

Certainly there will be more demanding defensive and positional tests for Zebo if he is now backed to start ahead of Kearney, but Schmidt understands the attacking difference he makes. 

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