We like Crowley but Italy keep finding terrible ways to lose
Let’s be candid: an upset result was never ever on the cards before kick-off in Dublin on Sunday. As much as we very much like what Kieran Crowley is trying to do as the new Italy boss – his blueprint for much-desired improvement was captured brilliantly in the recent RugbyPass behind the documentary on the Azzurri from November game versus the All Blacks – the enormous gap that exists between them and Ireland at Guinness Six Nations level was always going to be a chasm far too large to eradicate here in one fell swoop.
So it proved, Italy suffering their 100th Six Nations defeat since joining the championship in 2000 and their 35th loss on the bounce in the tournament stretching back to their last W in 2015. However, the way they lost was chastening as it showed how they keep making up new ways to lose.
Bad enough having to try and compete with a full complement of players but to try and survive 61 minutes a man down with a red card and 59 minutes with another man gone due to the necessity for uncontested scrums was a shambles that was then dubiously rounded off with the Italians having to play the final few minutes with just twelve players remaining after a silly yellow card.
That numerical calamity left them open to the dusting that duly materialised, Ireland’s 51-point winning margin surpassing anything they had managed against the Azzurri for quite some time. The average championship scoreline in recent years in these Irish-Italy fixtures under Andy Farrell had been 49-13, only marginally different from the 47-5 average score in the seven Six Nations games played with Joe Schmidt at the Ireland helm.
With Rome famed for not being built in a day, this encounter’s pressing question was always going to be by how wide a margin Ireland would win on this occasion and 57-6 was ultimately the painful answer. What we wanted from Ireland, though, was a more even-handed performance across a full 80 minutes.
Curiously of the 53 points that they had scored in their two previous Six Nations outings this month, 47 points happened in the opening 20 minutes of the first and second half period with just six points scored across the 20 to 40 and 60 to 80 segments of games.
Here, amid the macabre sight of uncontested scrums, it was the reverse. Ireland scored just 17 of their points in those two first 20-minute periods as handling errors stalled their momentum and left them waiting for flourishes later in the halves, especially in the closing ten minutes of the second period when the Italians were out on their feet at the end of an afternoon that never sparked the imagination.
It was thirteen minutes before the 3pm kick-off when the stadium lights show kicked into gear and the band marched onto the turf to generate some much-needed pre-match razzmatazz, enlivening the Sunday slumber that the slow build-up had been up to that point with about half the crowd yet to shuffle in to take their seats before a warmly received message about Six Nations and Ukrainian solidarity was followed by the anthems.
France and England had their issues in getting going against Italy and while Ireland needed just 220 seconds to cross the whitewash for their opening try, it wasn’t all plain sailing as the hosts were initially four-two down on the penalty count and only 7-3 ahead when the contest was ruined. There was merit in the red-carding of Italian sub hooker Hame Faiva for his head assault on Dan Sheehan, but no merit at all in the law surrounding uncontested scrums.
With Faiva having replaced the injured starter Gianmarco Lucchesi, Italy didn’t have another hooker to send on and they were forced to sacrifice No8 Toa Halafihi as a result. “That is the law”, repeated the referee to the perplexed and much confused Italians. Well, the law is an ass in this instance as it ruined the game as a spectacle.
Not that what followed was without some level of worthiness. Seeing Michael Lowry and James Lowe run in two tries each was lovely. So too the invigorating way the exciting Ryan Baird charged down a kick and then fastened onto the loose ball for his score.
In the end, nine tries was the generous Irish tally, one against 15 players, six against 13 and two more when it was 15 against twelve in the dying minutes of a game where the main two takeaways were that Italy – yet again – were brutal at Six Nations level and that Johnny Sexton will definitely be wearing the Ireland No10 jersey when they take on England in London in 13 days’ time.
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