IRELAND qualified for the knockout stages of the Rugby World Cup in unconvincing fashion after edging their way past an inspired Italy on a scoreline of 16-9 at the Olympic Stadium on Sunday.
It was a substandard performance from what we have become accustomed to from Joe Schmidt’s men, who in truth never matched the intensity shown by their opponents from the off.
It made for uncomfortable viewing from an Irish perspective as the Italians, largely written off by rugby commentators on both sides of the Irish Sea, could consider themselves somewhat unfortunate not to take the spoils, for it could have turned out so very different.
In the second-half, Italian second row Josha Furno was presented with a golden opportunity to score a try and put Italy ahead on the scoreboard. However, a monumental tackle by Peter O’Mahony managed to knock the lock into touch before he placed the ball down for the try.
In hindsight, it was the pivotal moment of the contest.
Had the Italian been more clinical with his ball placing, the underdogs would have taken a deserved lead near the three-quarter way mark of the contest. After that score went a begging, Ireland managed to close out the contest.
Although the collective fell short of the standards set by the coach, there were positives to take from the triumph. Iain Henderson and Peter O’Mahony had big games for Ireland, while Johnny Sexton kicked very well out of hand to keep an Irish team on the back foot moving up the field.
Additionally, the Irish scrum was solid while the lineout was terrific. Ireland won every single lineout on their own throw and managed to disrupt Italy’s lineout on five occasions. This superiority out of touch went a long way in helping Ireland win the game on a day when indiscipline and a lack of focus could have cost them dearly.
After a timid opening, Ireland took a 3-0 lead in the contest when Sexton kicked a penalty from close range. In the lead up to this score, the Irish out-half made a 20-yard break into the Italian ’22, before the penalty was conceded as Ireland recycled the ball across the field.
Italian out-half Tomasso Allen levelled matters after 15 minutes, when Jamie Heaslip was correctly judged to have played the ball off his feet just outside the Irish ’22. Even by this early stage, the game had a stagnated feel as there were plenty of stoppages interrupting the flow of the game.
In the 18th minute, Ireland took back the lead in the form of a try. O’Mahony managed to steal an Italian lineout inside their ’22 and Jamie Heaslip then carried the ball to within 10 metres of the line. Murray fed Sexton who passed to Robbie Henshaw, who took a terrific inside line. The Connacht centre managed to quickly change his feet and offload to his centre partner Keith Earls, who gathered and touched down for the try.
It was the score to make Earls Ireland’s highest ever try scorer at the World Cup with eight.
The Sexton conversion gave Ireland a 10-3 lead. However, indiscipline from Ireland kept the Italians close. Paul O’Connell was pinged for not rolling away and Allen closed the gap to 10-6.
Soon after Italy had a penalty to narrow the gap to a point, but with their pack in the ascendancy, they kicked for the corner. It turned out to be the wrong decision, as an overthrow by their hooker saw Ireland clear the danger.
On 30 minutes, Sexton was unlucky when his kick at goal from halfway hit the upright and stayed out. Ireland then got another chance to extend their lead to seven before half-time. However, like the Italians did earlier in the half, Ireland decided to go for the jugular and kicked to the corner. Although Ireland won the lineout, their maul was stopped before Conor Murray knocked on when picking the ball out of a ruck.
It left just four points between the sides at the break.
In the second half, Italy continued where they left off in the first half with Simone Favaro, Sergio Parisse and Michele Campagnaro all very much coming to the fore. Every time Ireland threatened to attack, a mistake would put Italy back in Ireland’s half.
Italy should have taken the lead when Parisse and Campagnaro put Furno in for what seemed a certain try, only for O’Mahony to somehow put the big lock into touch with a magnificent piece of last ditch defending.
Italy were very much on top and garnered a penalty inside the Irish half, but with the advantage being played Allen found his winger Giovanbattista Venditti with a wonderful cross-field kick, only for Simon Zebo to track the runner and tackle him to the ground. When the referee went back for the penalty award, Allen closed the gap to the narrowest of margins.
Before the hour mark, Sexton kicked two penalties to put Ireland into a 16-9 lead but with a quarter of the game to go, the result was very much in the balance. Ireland empted their bench to telling effect in the final 20 minutes. Sexton kicked to the corners whenever the opportunity presented itself, which kept the Italians pinned back in their own half for long spells.
With 10 minutes to go O’Mahony saw yellow for a breakdown infringement but Ireland managed to see out those final minutes without much drama to secure their third victory of this World Cup.
After an insipid display, it will be interesting to see whether Joe Schmidt makes changes for the French game.
Italy certainly turned out to be tougher than anticipated but such was the flatness of the display, it now casts doubt about the strength of the Irish mindset in dealing with expectation. Too often in World Cups gone by, Ireland have failed to perform when they are expected to win against seemingly inferior opponents.
Perhaps this game will serve to bring the squad back to a more solid footing before the crucial game against France next Sunday. As they say, the proof will be in the pudding.
Ireland: S Zebo; T Bowe, K Earls, R Henshaw, D Kearney; J Sexton, C Murray; J McGrath, R Best, M Ross; I Henderson, P O'Connell (capt); P O'Mahony, S O'Brien, J Heaslip.
Subs: S Cronin, C Healy, N White, D Toner, C Henry, E Reddan, I Madigan, L Fitzgerald.
Italy: L McLean; L Sarto, M Capagnaro, G Garcia, G Venditti; T Allan, E Gori; M Aguero, A Manici, L Cittadini; Q Geldenhuys, J Furno; F Minton, S Favaro, S Parisse (capt).
Subs: D Giazzon, M Rizzo, D Chistolini, A Zanni, Mauro Bergamasco, G Palazzani, C Canna, T Benvenuti.