A whopping 244 days since the hammering at Twickenham, a February Sunday afternoon where Ireland were comprehensively outplayed in the first-half forwards battle, were comedic in defending and a beaten docket at 17-0 down at the interval, Andy Farrell’s rejigged side secured the necessary 50-17 bonus-point win over Italy that nicely sets-up next weekend’s Super Saturday Six Nations finale.

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The seven tries to two triumph lifted them from fourth to first place in one fell swoop to set up a denouement where England will likely reclaim top spot with a win over the Azzurri in Rome before the French host the Irish in the late-night fixture that will ultimately decide the destination of the 2020 title.

There were no Irish celebrations here, though, at full-time, the fear being that unless they come up with the bonus-point win in Paris that will definitely secure them the championship regardless of what England get up in Italy, the clock-in-the-red consolation by Paolo Garbisi could scupper Ireland on points difference.

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They trudged off the Aviva Stadium pitch with their points difference cut to +38 instead of +45, lessening the climb for England who are on +15 and a currently a point behind Ireland on the table.

It was a pity as Ireland, fielding an XV showing a half-dozen changes from the sobering defeat to England (just two switched were due to injury), had produced the type of first-half and late second-half surge that Farrell had wanted to see – ruthless energy in defence, a dynamism in contact skills, an aggressive set-piece and clinical attack.

All the while there was a flurry of eye-catching contributions, namely those by back row rookies Caelan Doris and Will Connors, along with Tadhg Beirne in the engine room. Another fresh face, Hugo Keenan, didn’t look too shabby, scoring twice, but it was one of those afternoons where the Irish couldn’t fully run away with it.

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While there was nothing new in Ireland seeing off Italy, this was a Six Nations match-up with a heck of a difference to what is normally seen in rugby’s so-called greatest championship.

Ample street parking outside the ground, players standing social distant for the national anthems, an empty stadium bereft of the sold-out crowd that had intended attending the originally scheduled game in March, and a Rugby United Against Racism message were all standout features of an unusual build-up and it perhaps contributed to the warning bells unexpectedly going off in the Irish defence just three minutes in.

Sebastian Negri blazed a trail in between Johnny Sexton and CJ Stander on halfway, a shortcoming that ended with Conor Murray yellow-carded for not releasing the supporting Marcello Violi after the tackle following his last-ditch intervention near the line.

Italy played it cautiously, the debut-making Garbisi taking the easy three, but any notion they might feast on further fruit in the ensuing 15 vs 14 ten-minute spell was quickly dashed. They infringed at the restart and from there surrendered ten points in Murray’s absence.

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Stander made amends for his defensive slip, barging over by the posts after Ireland had gone to the corner with a penalty and probed initially with Garry Ringrose off the lineout. Then the pressure mounted, the Italian scrum giving Sexton a handy three points to add to his earlier conversion.

With Murray back in harness after his sideline penance, Italy’s struggles continued as Ireland upped the intensity in the collisions – Connors and Beirne setting the standard – and they dominated over the ball at the breakdown.

It wasn’t all plain sailing. A couple of errors from Bundee Aki stifled momentum, as did the sloppy ball protection at a maul after Sexton pinged another penalty to touch, while Ringrose departed for what was said to a head injury assessment on 27 minutes that he didn’t return from. It was later diagnosed as a broken jaw.

Three minutes later, though, Ireland were celebrating a converted try in the corner for newcomer Keenan, the winger fighting his way over off a sweet long pass from replacement Robbie Henshaw. Even better, Keenan looked to have run in his second just two minutes after his 30th-minute score, benefiting from Jacob Stockdale’s mazy running only for TMO review to scrub it out, penalising James Ryan for blocking Marco Lazzaroni and illegally creating the space that allowed his full-back glide through the cover.

Instead of being 22-3 up with a conversion to come, Ireland were suddenly back on defensive duty inside their own 22 but their rearguard was on point, a crunching Connors tackle giving Doris the incentive to pilfer Italy ruck ball. He soon found Aki and with Murray then entering the counter, the scrum-half executed a lovely kick into space from near halfway that the greyhound-like Keenan chased down to notch his second try. There was no ruling this one out and with Sexton smacking the touchline conversion with precision, Ireland had their 24-3 lead which they took to the interval.

Italy’s weakness has historically been their defence, the odd glimpse of nice attack shape meaningless when they can’t hold their line, and that became the second-half focus with the result now beyond doubt. With the sun emerging after the first-half greyness of a typical cold Irish autumn afternoon, the enthused visitors upped their tempo and were rewarded on 54 minutes.

Murray combined with Sexton off a halfway scrum but his attempted pass to Henshaw was gobbled up by Edoardo Padovani for a converted try and the pegging of the margin back to 14 points. Only temporarily mind. Seven minutes later, Connors nabbed the bonus-point try and the floodgates opened.

Robust carries by Stander and Doris were central to Sexton’s 65th-minute try, Aki then executed a neat step off his right foot on 69 before replacement Dave Heffernan seemed to have rounded it all off from a last-minute maul before Italy grabbed their second from Garbisi to leave a sense of Irish gloom hanging over the Aviva.

The title-winning prize money on offer to them next weekend in Paris would come in very handy. The Saturday match against the Italians had come 24 hours after the IRFU highlighted the cash black hole that exists in its annual report. The financial bottom line was concerning, a deficit of €35.7million for the latest annual accounting period up to July 31 due to pandemic lockdown of the sport.

Just as troubling seven pages into the 39-page document was the summary of union CEO Philip Browne regarding the state of play on the pitch. “There were a number of underlying reasons for the failure to progress beyond quarter-final stage, this including the timing in relation to World Cup in the context of evolving the game plan,” he said in reference to the sickly, bum note that the Joe Schmidt era had ended on in October 2019.

“International teams were very focused on Ireland given the success in 2018 and the Irish game had not evolved sufficiently to prevent opposing teams neutralising what had been a very effective game plan.”

‘Not evolved sufficiently’ were the three key words in all that. There were glimpses of variety in this performance against Italy but next weekend will be a litmus test, a fixture that will tell us much, much more about this new Farrell era and whether he was the correct appointment to take Ireland forward towards their desired brighter future.

IRELAND 50 Tries: Stander (8), Keenan (30, 36), Connors (61), Sexton (65), Aki (69), Heffernan (80); Cons: Sexton (9, 31, 38, 63, 71), Byrne (80); Pen: Sexton (14)

ITALY 17 Tries: Padovani (54), Garbisi (80); Cons: Garbisi (55, 80); Pen: Garbisi (4)

 

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