Italy have lost both of their opening Six Nations games, going down 30-12 at the Stade de France before a 19-15 loss to England in Stadio Olimpica. No surprises there, and Ireland should be confident in their ability to overcome Jacques Brunel’s team. Since taking over from Nick Mallet at the start of this season, Brunel has admirably underlined his intention to expand the Italian style of play.
Italy’s traditional and well-known strengths up front remain, but Brunel has stressed to his charges the need to develop a more rounded, 15-man style. Long-term, this is certainly a good thing for Italian rugby, and the Six Nations as a tournament. The losses to France and England showed exactly how much work Italy have yet to do in developing their game plan into what Brunel terms “a more fluid style, a sense of spirit”.
The Italian back-line has struggled to create genuine try-scoring chances, with their two tries so far (both against England) coming directly from opposition errors. Despite having only minimally less possession than both France and England, Italy’s attempts to put more width on the ball have actually resulted in them creating very little, and even being to their detriment.
Indeed, France seemed happy to let Italy retain possession at the breakdown, fanning out instead of competing on the deck. This allowed them to blitz aggressively on the Italian midfield, forcing them into errors. All four French tries came as a result of Italian mistakes (admittedly one from a turnover scrum). Against the English, long spells of Italian possession again came to very little. The swiftness with which they punished two English mistakes does bode well for Italy but their lack of invention is a worry for Brunel.
The decision to drop Kris Burton in favour of Tobias Botes looks like the coach’s attempt to add a more creative spark to his team. Botes has played much of his rugby at scrumhalf up until this season, but Brunel sees him as a player who can open the game up. His place-kicking after coming on against England was very poor and will have to improve if Italy are to stay close to Ireland.
As expected, the Italians remain strong up front. Martin Castrogiovanni will miss the rest of the competition, but Italy have a long production line of heavyweight props. Lorenzo Cittadini is no spring chicken at 29 and will look to ask questions of Cian Healy at scrum-time. Ireland answered Nick Mallet’s scrum-related taunts at the World Cup and will look for dominance there again tomorrow.
The Italian maul has the look of a potent attacking weapon, showing up particularly well in glimpses against France. However, Brunel’s desire for width often meant that the maul was not utilised to its full extent in Paris. It would suit Ireland if the same applied in Dublin.
So how do Ireland cut this Italian side open? Tempo and width are key. The Italians are weak at scrambling defensively. England showed the way in the 3rd minute of the match two weekends ago. From a turnover, they spread the ball wide to Strettle who carried at pace up the right-hand touchline. Swift recycling at the ruck resulted in a clean line-break for Phil Dowson. The English, utterly lacking in creativity themselves, failed to test the Italians in a similar manner for the remainder of the game.
As mentioned above, the four French tries came about after Italian errors. The French are better than anyone at swift punishment of mistakes. This is not to say that Ireland should let Italy have all the possession and feed off their mistakes though. The key point is that Italy are slow to reorganise in defence when they are stretched.
Their line speed is not as aggressive as the Welsh defence which stifled Ireland three weekends ago. Ireland should look to get around them out wide through the pace of Earls and Bowe, moving them around the pitch in defence, making their big, heavy pack work hard to get back into position. From there, the likes of O’Brien and Ferris will have more opportunity for one-on-one carries and the tries will come.
Italy have actually looked pretty decent at counter-attacking off poor kicking. One of the major points taken from the Ireland vs. Wales game was the apparently aimless, deep Irish kicking. While the Italians are competent in the broken play resulting from loose kicks, they seem entirely less comfortable under a strong kick chase. Early on in the England game there were several dropped balls from the Italians under pressure from the English chase.
Conor Murray’s early box-kick against Wales which allowed Tommy Bowe to win a penalty for Ireland is the template. Murray has to make his kicks down either touchline contestable, particularly against the inexperienced Vendetti on the right wing. Even if it results in less relief in terms of territory, Ireland can reclaim these kicks in the air and immediately put Italy into exactly the type of defensive scramble which they struggle with.
An Ireland win is almost certain, but it is important that we see a clear Irish game plan tomorrow. We have 15 top-class players, some of the best in the world. But simply putting them on the pitch and hoping that they gel is not enough. Brunel has a clear vision for how he wants Italy to play. Kidney and his management team need to come up with their own vision and give these Irish players the platform to excel.
Photos courtesy: Stefano Delfrate.