The winners and losers from Ireland's Italian job
The five-try win was far from a five-star performance.
Andy Farrell’s juggernaut Ireland side claimed a tenth successive victory on Saturday afternoon in Rome, beating out a spirited Italy 34-20.
The Azzuri had not beaten Ireland since 2013, and many predicted a similar scoreline to last year’s 57-6 demolition. Yet, Kieran Crowley’s team delivered what was an unexpectedly tense affair.
James Ryan captained Ireland on his 51st test.
Ireland were a much-changed side from their victory over France in their previous outing, and made six changes through a mixture of injuries and squad rotation. James Ryan was named captain in Johnny Sexton’s absence.
Several Ireland players stood at the Stadio Olimpico, and helped the team extend their exemplary Six Nations record by collecting maximum points from their opening three fixtures.
We assess the winners and losers from Ireland’s Italian job ahead of the team's trip to Murrayfield to face a resurgent Scotland side in two weeks’ time.
The highest compliment which can be paid to the 27-year-old is that Sexton’s absence went largely unnoticed barring the occasional camera pan to the stands of the Stadio Olimpico.
Byrne’s influence was evident even before kick-off when the broadcaster’s spider camera caught the Leinster fly half delivering an impassioned speech in the customary pre-match huddle.
Byrne delivered an encouraging performance, assuredly marching the Irish attack around the Italian half. The 17-cap international cemented his place as Johnny Sexton’s de-facto understudy.
The Ulster tighthead entered the fold far earlier than anticipated following teammate Finlay Bealham’s first half knee injury.
The 24-year-old tightened up a previously shaky looking Irish scrum. He also rectified Bealham’s earlier penalty concession by winning two of his own at the set-piece.
On Friday, Andy Farrell confirmed first-choice Tadhg Furlong’s availability for the Scotland clash. However, Furlong has played just 36 minutes of competitive rugby since the autumn internationals.
O’Toole’s performance may persuade the Ireland head coach into easing Furlong back into action.
Another player who made an instant impact off the bench, the Leinster lock delivered an impressive 25-minute cameo having replaced the industrious Iain Henderson.
Baird highlighed his extreme athleticism with an excellent kick-chase just moments after entering the action. The 23-year-old also went on to win a crucial turnover penalty which Ross Byrne slotted home.
Given the fact he offered such an invigorating display from the bench, the Irish coaching ticket may consider Baird at Murrayfield as they seek to nullify the mobile Scottish pack.
Conan, in a rare start in an Irish shirt, failed to impose his usual physicality upon the game.
The Leinster number eight instead was outshone by back row compatriots Josh van der Flier and Caelan Doris.
Conan's ball carrying is his principle threat. Yet, in a quiet display, he managed a disappointing tally just 21 metres from nine carries. The 30-year-old was replaced before the hour mark by Peter O’Mahony.
Conan appears to have missed his chance to put pressure on the Munster captain and will likely have to make do with a bench spot for the remainder of the competition.
The Connacht back will still be disappointed by his overall display, even if he was subject to an eleventh-hour positional change to outside centre following Garry Ringrose’s late withdrawal due to a calf injury.
Aki was at fault for Italy’s first try in falling off a number of tackles. The 32-year-old also threw a risky no-look pass which was snapped up by Italian wing Pierre Bruno for a breakaway try on the stroke of half time.
In knocking the ball on over the line, the 45-test veteran capped off a day to forget in Rome, which highlighted the importance of Ringrose’s consistency in performance to Ireland.
Aki did at least offer a deft set of hands in the lead up to James Ryan’s try.
Crowley, making the match day squad for the first time in the Six Nations, would have hoped for more than the brief three-minute walk-on appearance he was afforded.
The Munster back, who finished the Autumn series with a start against the Wallabies, looked like the heir-in-waiting to Johnny Sexton’s throne.
Following Ross Byrne’s match-clinching kick against Australia, however, and his astute performance on Satuday, Crowley appears to have slumped behind his Leinster counterpart in the pecking order.
The chance to impress the Ireland coaching staff in the heat of battle appears to have passed the Cork native by. These were likely Crowley’s last competitive minutes in the green jersey before this autumn’s World Cup.
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