Ireland Stay On Course For The Slam

Italy 20 v 34 Ireland

Ireland remain on course for the Grand Slam after beating a spirited Italy in Rome on Saturday. Ireland were made to work hard for their victory by an Italian side that refused to go away, fighting back from 24-10 down and staying in the game until Mack Hansen’s second try finally secured victory. Despite some nervy moments, Ireland displayed their customary composure and the grit of champions to see off the impressive Italians. After sewing up the bonus point in the first half, thanks to some typically clinical attacking play, it appeared Ireland might coast to victory, but Italy refused to lie down and fought their way back into the game. Ireland were surprisingly sloppy at times, with Head Coach Andy Farrell conceding, “We made it quite difficult for ourselves at times.”

Ireland’s sloppiness was partly born from Italy’s ingenuity, as they played the ambitious, often exhilarating rugby that has made them a pleasure to watch of late. Italy will rue missing several tackles in the first half as they failed to quell the Irish momentum, with Ireland ruthlessly exploiting some poor defensive moments. They defended much better in the second half, repelling Ireland for long periods, and with the score at 24-20, a famous upset looked on the cards. Italy’s attacking play was scintillating at times, troubling the Irish defence on several occasions. Ultimately, Ireland’s greater superiority shone through, but Italy can take heart from another good performance and look forward to the visit of Wales with quiet confidence.

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Italy started the match bristling with intent, but Ireland almost pulled the first punch. James Lowe appeared to have scored the game’s first try after being fed by Bundee Aki, but the winger lost the ball over the line. Italy’s reprieve was short-lived; however, Aki once again set Lowe free, who fed captain James Ryan on the inside to go over. Ireland’s score came from their usual ploy of flooding the blindside, ruthlessly exploiting Edoardo Padovani’s defensive error to create the overlap. Italy responded excellently, playing with real pace, and they soon had their first score. The try came from a brilliant carry from the impressive Lorenzo Cannone, who burst into the heart of the Irish 22, and when Luke Varney sniped over, Italy took the lead.

Italy were causing Ireland numerous problems, generating quick ball and seeking to stretch the play as wide as possible. They almost scored again of the back of the line out, Cannone picking a wonderful line to race into the 22 before Andrew Porter’s vital turnover curtailed the attack. Ireland’s new centre partnership of Stuart McCloskey and Bundee Aki struggled with their defensive alignment, as Italy cleverly avoided taking Ireland on through the middle. Ireland regained the lead through their own line-out move, some lovely hands from Mack Hanseen freeing Aki, who fed Hugo Keenan, the full-back slipping through several weak tackles to run in under the posts.

The momentum started to shift Ireland’s way as Italy struggled to live with the speed of ball the Irish generated. Once again, Aki and Lowe combined down the blindside after some neat hands from Josh van der Flier, with Aki holding off Varney to score in the corner. Ireland soon wrapped up the bonus point, with Mack Hansen touching down after a concerted period of pressure, giving Ireland a 24-10 lead. Things looked ominous for Italy, but winger Pierre Bruno hauled them back in the game on the stroke of halftime, intercepting Aki’s pass and racing clear to score. Bruno’s try made it a seven-point game and gave Italy some optimism heading into the second half.

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Ireland started the second half on the front foot, camping themselves in the Italian 22 with a series of attacks. Italy’s defence was significantly sterner, though, falling off fewer tackles and able to slow down the Irish ball. Italy managed to repel the Irish attack and soon narrowed the deficit, Paolo Garbisi striking over a penalty after Porter was penalised for a needless foul off the ball. Ireland appeared to have struck a crucial blow shortly after; Ross Bryne and Hansen combined to put Aki away, but the TMO spotted Aki spilling the ball over the line, giving the Italians a lifeline. Ireland started to look a little edgy, kicking the ball a lot more, and with the game entering the final twenty minutes, the match was in the balance.

With the tension mounting, Bryne slotted a penalty to move Ireland seven points in front, substitute Ryan Baird making several telling impacts. Italy then spurned a golden opportunity to score; Giovanni Pettinelli’s break carved Ireland open, but Ignacio Brex overcooked his crossfield kick, and the chance disappeared. Ireland put the game beyond doubt with ten minutes left, Connor Murray feeding the slippery Hansen, who went in under the posts. The score was built off the back of a couple of excellent carries from Caelan Doris, using his footwork to generate some go-forward against a stubborn Italian defence. Italy bravely came back at Ireland, but the men in green held resolute, once again taking maximum points and moving one step closer to a potential slam.

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Italy were ultimately left ruing several first-half defensive lapses that left them chasing the game, but the Italy of old would have folded at 24-10 down. The Azzurri’s attack looked sharp all game, with their ambition rarely straying into the recklessness it did against France, while their defence was excellent in the second half. Italy’s progression has enriched the championship, and they’ll head into their game against Wales as favourites, a unique position.

After their thrilling win over France, Ireland negotiated their Italian job safely, albeit with greater difficulty than anticipated. Ireland lacked the sharpness they displayed against France, but their clinical edge in the first half ensured they always held the Italians at arm’s length. They had some sloppy moments but showed their mettle, coming up with the crucial killer score when needed. There were plenty of positives, both wingers showed their potency, and Van der Flier produced some vital contributions. Bundee Aki had a mixed day on his return to the side, flourishing in attack but occasionally getting caught defensively. In fairness, Aki has rarely played at thirteen, and Ringrose’s late withdrawal threw him and McCloksey together. Ireland face a tough trip to Murrayfield next, but with several key players set to return, their slam hopes remain on course.

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