Brian O'Driscoll and Rory Best question crucial James Ryan call against Italy
"I think it's always easy to sit in the studio with the benefit of hindsight, and say you would have"
James Ryan scored a try for Ireland and captained them to their eighth straight Test victory, but it was not all sweetness and light in Rome.
Ireland defeated Italy 34-20 at Stadio Olimpico to stay on course for a Six Nations Grand Slam and a first title since 2018. They were looking good, late in the first half, at 24-10 but conceded an intercept try to make for a thrilling, tense second 40.
During the second half, with Ireland 24-17 ahead, Ryan twice opted to play out penalties rather than kick for three points that would have stretched his team's lead. That drive was ultimately left unrewarded as Rónan Kelleher had a lineout throw stolen and Italy cleared their lines. The next team to score were Italy, from the boot of Paolo Garbisi, and it was 24-20 with over a quarter of the game to play.
Ireland defended stoutly and were aided by bench impacts from the likes of Ryan Baird, Tom O'Toole and Conor Murray. They sealed victory with a Ross Byrne penalty and a converted try from Mack Hansen.
Following the Ireland victory, however, former captains Brian O'Driscoll and Rory Best questioned the decision of James Ryan not to take the points on offer. Ireland had already secured a try-scoring bonus point in the first half so taking three points looked the most sensible option.
Brian O'Driscoll on James Ryan penalty calls
As part of their post-match analysis for ITV, both Brian O'Driscoll and Rory Best spoke about James Ryan, as captain, not instructing Ross Byrne to kick for points when a couple of penalties went Ireland's way, in the first half.
In past outings as captain, Ryan has often backed his pack to get over the tryline when penalties have been awarded. That back-fired in Paris before and last year, against France, the Leinster forward was criticised for going for three points, after 72 minutes, when his side, trailing 27-21, were awarded a kickable penalty. "It just felt like it was the right decision at the time," Ryan would later reflect.
On this occasion, the Ireland captain - covering the role while Johnny Sexton missed out through injury - took the bolder option but his calculated gamble was not rewarded.
Asked if he, as Ireland captain, would have taken the points if presented with a similar situation as James Ryan, Rory Best replied, "It's always easy to sit in the studio with the benefit of hindsight, and say you would have.
"At that point, it was a seven-point game. Italy had scored the intercept try, just before half-time, and had a little bit of momentum. Ireland went to the corner and got penalised. Italy got the next penalty then Bundee [Aki] knocked on near the tryline and it stayed at a four-point game. Those were the sort of moments where you see a lot about the game and what people can do."
"We all said in the studio here," O'Driscoll continued, "that, at decision time there, you kick the points. It was just seven points [ahead] and, as Rory said, they had that shift in momentum... kick your goal, go 10 points ahead and build again. Ireland know they have loads of scores in them, but make sure you have a bit of a buffer to work from."
Later in the game, when another penalty went Ireland's way, Ryan instructed Byrne to kick for points and Ireland went 27-20 ahead. The clincher arrived when Caelan Doris and Conor Murray combined to put Mack Hansen away for his second try of the game.
"On the road to any Grand Slam," O'Driscoll would reflect, "there is always a stumbling block. And it will prove to be very difficult against Scotland again, next week, but this could have been a huge banana skin because Italy were very impressive.
"Ireland still found a way. As much as we'll give credit to Italy, Ireland still managed to get the job done."
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