Ireland dig deep to beat plucky Italy in Rome
SIX NATIONS REPORT: Ireland’s hunt for a Six Nations Grand Slam is on after the world’s top-ranked team overcame Italy 34-20 in an entertaining encounter in Rome on Saturday.
Mack Hansen scored two tries with James Ryan, Hugo Kennan and Bundee Aki also dotting down to ensure that the Irish have taken 15 points from their three matches in this year’s tournament.
Ross Byrne, who played in place of captain Johnny Sexton, kicked nine points in a win which for long spells looked far from guaranteed.
Andy Farrell’s side are five points clear at the top of the Six Nations standings ahead of closest rivals Scotland’s showdown against France at the Stade de France on Sunday.
Italy stay on a single point in the table, one in front of troubled Wales who host England later on Saturday.
Aki said Ireland’s performance – including his own – left room for improvement.
“It was a mixed bag, we did some really good stuff and also did the total opposite. That is just a credit to Italy, we knew it was going to be a tough game. They are a proud nation,” he said.
“Our overall performance needs to be better and our discipline needs to be better. I was one of those whose discipline wasn’t good enough.”
Azzurri coach Kieran Crowley and the country’s rugby federation said before the tournament that they were targeting two wins this year but they have their work cut out if they want to reach that objective.
Italy host Wales, beaten by the Azzurri at the end of last year’s Six Nations, in a fortnight’s time before travelling to Murrayfield to take on Scotland a week later as they try to avoid yet another wooden spoon.
Crowley’s young team caused Ireland problems with their own expansive style of rugby and scored tries through Stephen Varney and Pierre Bruno, with the returning flyhalf Paolo Garbisi kicking 10 points.
Ireland continue charge
Ireland made six changes from the team which beat France two weeks ago and had to battle their way past the Italians, but looked like they were going to run away with the match early on as James Lowe just failed to dot down under pressure from Ange Capuozzo.
Seconds later Lowe was involved again as he charged down the left flank and unloaded to James Ryan who ran through for an easy, but not converted score.
However Italy recovered from the early blow and after a long spell of pressure swept the ball across to the right flank and into the hands of Nicolo Cannone, who burst through the Irish defence and fell just short of the tryline.
Varney then snatched the ball up and crossed to level the scores in the seventh minute, before Garbisi slotted the conversion.
Hugo Keenan deflated the enthusiastic home crowd just six minutes later, re-establishing Ireland’s lead with a converted try under the posts after the fullback slipped two desperate tackles following great play from Byrne and Aki.
Garbisi pulled Italy to within three points with a penalty but every time Ireland attacked they looked like they might score, and it was more exceptional ball handling which led to the away side’s third try.
Garbisi gave the ball away sloppily towards his own 22 and from there it was lightning hands which led to Lowe again charging down the left before a quick no-look pass allowed Aki to touch down in the corner.
And Hansen made sure Ireland would pick up a bonus point with five minutes left of the first half when he dived into the corner after what seemed like a lifetime of Ireland pressure on Italy’s tryline.
Bruno made the half-time score a respectable 24-17 in favour of the Irish when he intercepted a sloppy Aki pass and charged most of the field to score under the posts for a score converted by Garbisi.
Montpellier flyhalf Garbisi then kicked Italy to within four points of Ireland with a 56th-minute penalty and the hosts avoided the deficit being extended two minutes later when Aki was adjudged to have lost possession before dotting down.
However, Byrne then slotted a penalty of his own before Hansen scored his second try of the match with nine minutes remaining when he slipped away from the defensive line to cross under the posts and guarantee Ireland the win.
Man of the match: Lorenzo Cannone was a powerhouse with ball in hand against the Irish, while Ange Capuozzo was a constant threat when he ran from the back. Ireland wing James Lowe produced another eye-catching performance out wide and his distribution and ability to beat the first defender gave Italy plenty of problems. Loose forward Josh van der Flier’s work rate was again something to behold and he got his team over the gain line on a number of occasions. However, the award goes to wing Mack Hansen who scored two of his team’s tries. He was a wily customer out wide throughout the match and his second try with less than 10 minutes left on the clock gave his team some breathing space.
Moment of the match: Ireland fans will surely point to Mack Hansen’s second try which secured the victory against a plucky Italian side. However, a few minutes earlier, Italy were camped inside Ireland’s half and they looked like they were going to score before the ball was kicked over the tryline instead of keeping it in hand. A converted try there would have levelled the scores.
Tries: Varney, Bruno
Cons: Garbisi 2
Pens: Garbisi 2
Tries: Ryan, Keenan, Aki, Hansen 2
Cons: Byrne 3
Italy: 15 Ange Capuozzo, 14 Edoardo Padovani, 13 Juan Ignacio Brex, 12 Tommaso Menoncello, 11 Pierre Bruno, 10 Paolo Garbisi, 9 Stephen Varney; 8 Lorenzo Cannone, 7 Michele Lamaro (captain), 6 Sebastian Negri, 5 Federico Ruzza, 4 Niccolò Cannone, 3 Simone Ferrari, 2 Giacomo Nicotera, 1 Danilo Fischetti.
Replacements: 16 Luca Bigi, 17 Federico Zani, 18 Marco Riccioni, 19 Edoardo Iachizzi, 20 Giovanni Pettinelli, 21 Alessandro Fusco, 22 Luca Morisi, 23 Tommaso Allan.
Ireland: 15 Hugo Keenan, 14 Mack Hansen, 13 Stuart McCloskey, 12 Bundee Aki, 11 James Lowe, 10 Ross Byrne, 9 Craig Casey, 8 Jack Conan, 7 Josh van der Flier, 6 Caelan Doris, 5 James Ryan (captain), 4 Iain Henderson, 3 Finlay Bealham, 2 Ronan Kelleher, 1 Andrew Porter.
Replacements: 16 Dan Sheehan, 17 Dave Kilcoyne, 18 Tom O’Toole, 19 Ryan Baird, 20 Peter O’Mahony, 21 Conor Murray, 22 Jack Crowley, 23 Jimmy O’Brien.
Referee: Mike Adamson (Scotland)
Assistant Referees: Wayne Barnes (Ireland) & Craig Evans (Wales)
TMO: Marius Jonker (South Africa)
AFP & @rugby365com