Six Nations: Five takeaways from Italy v Ireland as Grand Slam dream lives on – just

Adam Kyriacou
Bundee Aki

Following a 34-20 victory for Ireland over Italy in their Six Nations fixture, here’s our five takeaways from the match at the Stadio Olimpico.

Ireland’s Grand Slam dream lives on – just

It was very much a case of job done for Ireland as they picked up a bonus-point success over the Azzurri. But those watching will know it was anything but plain sailing for Andy Farrell’s men in Rome.

Italy gave the Irish a mighty scare as the hosts took yet another step forward in their progression as a team, and that should strike fear into Wales, who head to this venue on March 11 looking for revenge for what happened in Cardiff, 2022.

But for Ireland, the Grand Slam dream remains possible, and with several players absent today, which offered precious minutes for their understudies, there will be plenty of lessons learned from this outing.

There were some positives, but in truth, it was too close for comfort and a stark reminder of how vital the likes of Johnny Sexton, Garry Ringrose and other senior players are to this team.

It’s fine to kick, Italy

Kieran Crowley’s men are a great team to watch nowadays, and a part of that is their willingness to chance their arm, but they need to find more balance in their game. Their exits arguably cost them against France in their Six Nations opener, and it got them into trouble on Saturday again. There is a reason very few top teams run it from deep, and Italy need to learn the value of territory.

Even when the Italians do kick, they then don’t give scrum-half Stephen Varney enough protection, giving Irishmen free rein to charge him down. Italy are improving a number of aspects of their play but getting their exits right are absolutely critical if they are to progress further and beat tier one teams.

More Azzurri youngsters show their class

A lot of attention has rightly been given to Paolo Garbisi and Ange Capuozzo, two players that have already shown their class regularly at international level, but others are also stepping up. Lorenzo Cannone had a fine Autumn Nations Series, but he certainly hasn’t had the same coverage as the other two.

However, we doubt that will remain the same, having enjoyed a barnstorming game against the Irish. The number eight was outstanding in the loose, making two brilliant breaks – one which led to a break – and always making ground with the ball in hand.

Cannone was joined by Tommaso Menoncello in being one of Italy’s standouts. The young centre, who made his debut in last year’s Six Nations, was another to make a significant impression with his power and pace causing the Irishmen problems. Menoncello has played on the wing, but he is wasted out wide and will hopefully be playing more at centre in the future.

Garry Ringrose absence leaves Irish midfield exposed

Ringrose was named in the starting line-up for the clash but withdrew from the match due to an injury he picked up against France. This caused a midfield shuffle, with Bundee Aki shifting to outside centre and Stuart McCloskey reclaiming the number 12 jumper.

McCloskey and Aki were superb on attack, with both players showcasing their physicality and softer skills, particularly in the first half. Aki shone in the stats scoring a try and assisting two in the first half, but McCloskey played a key role in all the scores.

However, it was in defence that Ringrose’s absence was really felt. The Azzurri regularly found gaps between the pair, with Ross Byrne taking over the starting fly-half jersey did not help.

Lorenzo Cannone kept punching holes through the pair in the second half, and Capuozzo also found space, particularly on Aki’s outside. While Aki was outstanding with the ball in hand, he was often slow to turn in defence and was caught out several times in a position he was not entirely comfortable in.

Ringrose makes sharp and intelligent decisions defensively at outside centre, and Robbie Henshaw is an expert in doing the same. Without either of the two operating there, Ireland does look poorer defensively.

Ireland’s tighthead stocks take further hit

With the absence of Tadhg Furlong for the opening rounds a pretty sizeable loss, not just physically but in terms of his presence and aura on the field, Ireland turned to Connacht’s Finlay Bealham, who has filled in admirably at the coalface in his minutes on the field.

However, a knee problem suffered in the first half on Saturday has now further depleted their tighthead options and while Tom O’Toole has been outstanding off the bench in recent games, who is the next cab off the rank should Furlong not recover in time for Round Four?

Roman Salanoa was recently called into the training camp and looks the most likely option to come into the matchday 23 if both Furlong and Bealham are out. But a Test rookie coming off the bench against Scotland at Murrayfield is not ideal, with Ireland fans no doubt keeping a close eye on Furlong’s recovery updates in the coming week or so.

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