Ireland v Italy: Five takeaways as Irish depth hits ‘new heights’ while the Azzurri tight five needs an ‘overhaul’

James While
Ireland's Jack Conan (with ball) after scoring his side's third try of the game during the Six Nations match against Italy.

Ireland's Jack Conan (with ball) after scoring his side's third try of the game during the Six Nations match against Italy.

Following Ireland’s 36-0 victory over Italy, here are our five takeaways from the Six Nations fixture at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin on Sunday.

The top line

Ireland put in yet another masterclass of total rugby as they nilled Italy in a match that was little more than a training run for Andy Farrell’s men.

Tries from Jack Crowley (7′), Dan Sheehan (23′)(49′), Jack Conan (36′), James Lowe (61′) and Calvin Nash (77′) showed just how impressive Ireland were with ball in hand and save for a poor performance from Crowley off the tee and a couple of disallowed tries, the scoreline might have been even more crushing for the Azzurri who struggled to get any form of foothold into the match.

With Lowe grabbing the player of the match award in an impressive all-round display, a word must go to the Irish defence who kept Italy scoreless for the first time in a Six Nations match, testimony to the crushing pressure that the loose forwards and rush defence exerted in a sumptuous 80 minutes of green excellence.

With a near flawless set-piece and a deep dive into the options available to Ireland, this was a performance that would have thrilled the Irish coaching staff and given them a lot of food for thought in terms of the depth of their squad.


At the heart of the Irish win was the speed of ruck ball. Italy chose to keep men out of the contest and spread wide in primary defence and as a result, the Irish half-backs had an armchair ride in terms of possession and speed of ball.

The number of options they created with cut-back passes and the ability to offer an attacking option on either side of the ball carrier saw them consistently create multiple threats, always with a numerical advantage.

With huge courage to play a space-based game no matter where they were on the pitch, the confidence that they have with ball in hand is quite remarkable. It’s a team-based trait – with even front-row forwards such as Andrew Porter and the outstanding Finlay Bealham comfortable enough on the ball to whip out cut-back and miss passes to their eager and potent backline.

Crowley is maturing into a wonderful Test 10, and whilst he’s not yet been fully tested in a tight game – at Test level anyway – his poise and ability to bring power runners into the channels off short passes is quite exceptional; his work with centre Robbie Henshaw caused Italy no end of issues, and the powerful Lions 13 was at the centre of everything good that Farrell’s men created as he once again had a match to remember.

Set-piece flourishes

With the chaos Ireland created with the ball in hand and with their running options on either side, you’d hope that Italy had one crumb of comfort, but their set-piece was absolutely reamed at both scrum time and in the lineout.

Italy lost six of their own throws as Ireland – boasting five primary lineout options – simply threw everyone up in competition, knowing they had a numerical mismatch in the number of catchers they had in their armoury again. With Italy not helping themselves by offering mainly static jumps against the fluid Irish athletes, it really was a case of the hosts almost picking the Italian throw off at will on a day where the Azzurri only managed a 55% completion.

The scrum wasn’t much better either; Porter has come under intense scrutiny for perceived illegality under pressure and had a much better day at the office, staying much squarer and straighter in setup and in drive. On the other side of the scrum, Bealham proved that he’s pushing the great Tadhg Furlong all the way in terms of first-choice selection, and it’s fair to say he’s been by far the better scrummager of the two this season, with some good judges of the dark arts suggesting that his extra height over Furlong allows him to work better with the enormous Sheehan on engagement.

Italy got a little more reward when their bench came on, but by that time, it was all too little too late, and Ireland’s tally of 12 ‘turnovers’ in scrum and lineout demonstrated once more the completeness of this Irish team.

Ireland player ratings: Front-row demolition allows the backs to cut the Azzurri open

Exploration of depth

Farrell is learning a lot about the reserve strength that he has at his disposal. Already this season, we’ve seen Crowley carry on where Johnny Sexton left off, and the young 10 looks as if he’s to the manner born in terms of Test rugby.

We’ve already mentioned Bealham, but the Irish back five stocks in the pack are at newfound heights. James Ryan was a Lions shoo-in six months ago, but Joe McCarthy’s excellence might see him relegated to a bench option when Ireland select their first 15.

At eight, Conan reminded us all that he’s one of the hardest and most direct carriers in the world as he delivered a masterclass from the base, whilst on the blindside, Ryan Baird again put in a performance that will have the current skipper Peter O’Mahony looking over his shoulder in terms of selection.

In the backline, Nash completed an industrious day for the young wing by hammering over for Ireland’s last try as Jamison Gibson-Park came on and took the excellence shown by Craig Casey to even new heights and even Stuart McCloskey, almost a forgotten man of the Irish midfield, reminded the selectors he’s able to do a job when and if required.

It’s really now a case of how does Farrell squeeze all of this talent into a Test match 23 and it’s certain there will be a few disappointed men when the team to play Wales is announced in 10 days’ time.

Italian woes

It’s hard to think of one single thing that went right for Italy or a time when they really managed to put together a period of sustained pressure.

They might be moderately pleased with the way their scramble defence reacted to the wave of Irish runners, and it’s fair to say that had they not worked so hard in this aspect, the scoreline may well have been much worse. But the reason their primary and secondary defence had so much work was the fact that Italy completely abdicated any challenge at ruck time, a tactic that meant they were always on their heels in defence.

With a wonderfully talented backline Italy simply must find a way of feeding their carriers. That means an overhaul of their tight five in order that they can win a degree of possession to use. Alongside that, they must find a way of exiting successfully under pressure to positions on the pitch where they can get some form of foothold.

Rather like Wales yesterday, the speed of the Irish blitz line, unfettered by ruck or breakdown challenge, made the Azzurri half-backs crab deeper and deeper so that even clearing box-kicks were rendered uncontestable since they had no player available onside that was able to make the metres legally to challenge.

Italy have so much to offer with their three-quarters and back three, but like the match against England in Rome last week, until their forwards man up in the close exchanges and set-piece, we’re unlikely to see those players deliver their undoubted potential.

READ MORE: Italy player ratings: Awful Azzurri hammered by Ireland in crushing defeat