By Tadhg Peavoy
The most evident fact in Saturday’s basement battle at the Aviva was just how far Italy are from the races in top-tier rugby. As one of world rugby’s big ten they should be right in these games, and competitive in all five rounds of the Six Nations. They were anything but in Dublin. Incredibly poor in defence with no apparent structure and holes in the backline so big you could drive a bus through them. Given this was a chance for their first win of the championship season, and a chance to leap frog Ireland into fifth in the table, their lack of bite was remarkable.
Jacques Brunel’s tenure will come to an end this season and in truth it needs to. The Frenchman, in charge since 2011, led Italy to fourth in the 2013 Six Nations and following that season there was huge optimism around the Azzurri.
But the last two campaigns and the 2015 Rugby World Cup have shown little progress with his team unable to find the consistency and confidence needed to break that three-win barrier in Europe’s top-table competition.
The touted arrival of Conor O’Shea as director of rugby will be a sea change for the Italians and mark an attempt to start afresh with the national team, and also begin to implement a coaching structure at underage and academy level that will mean come 2030 Italy will be competing for a spot in the top half of the table on a regular basis.
It’s a hugely difficult proposition, but one that needs to be a success for the Six Nations, as Italy’s consistent underperformance has become a bugbear that brings the level of the tournament down. I believe it can and will happen, it’s just a matter of when, not if. It took France 30 championship seasons to win the title outright.
For Ireland, it was a matter of job done. But Italy were so poor that Ireland barely had to break sweat in Dublin 4. A win always looked on the cards and so it proved. The clarion call from the media and public beforehand was that Joe Schmidt needed to throw caution to the wind with selection and allow the bolters inclusion in order to further develop the squad. That viewpoint had much merit, but few will argue that the 58-15 hammering Ireland doled out to Italy will have given the squad, and by extension Irish rugby, and shot to the arm. Now, instead of going into the Scotland game with a shaky win over Italy, they are going in with a confidence they will not have possessed since seeing off France in Pool D of the Rugby World Cup.
The championship is long gone, but a further win against Scotland will hand Ireland a very good platform to go to South Africa in June and have a tilt at the Boks. Ireland have never beaten the two-time world champions on their own turf and going down there with some wins in the tank is essential. The momentum produced by a further win against Scotland would mean so much.
Tinkering still needs to happen as Ireland continue to look towards Japan 2019.
The growth of the squad through the likes of Finlay Bealham, Ultan Dillane, CJ Stander, Josh van der Flier and Stuart McCloskey needs to be continued in the summer and supplemented by more new faces or game time for fringe players; most especially Kieran Marmion, Paddy Jackson, Luke Marshall, Garry Ringrose, Craig Gilroy and Matt Healy.
The obvious difficulty is that this growth has limited time to bed in through a four-year cycle, and doing it in South Africa is the stuff of nightmares for a coach. The pragmatism of Schmidt will indicate that the core of his selections for the next four Tests will be built on security and will have a spine of experience peppered with youth. And this will likely be accepted by the rugby public; sending a team built mostly on youth to face the Boks would be foolhardy in the extreme.
Nine tries against Italy was a decent reward and it came from a mixture of two styles: forward-based boshing using power runners around the fringes, or, wide play involving offloads and the desire to play into space. This has become the template over the last four games for Ireland, and is beginning to reap dividends. The next four matches will reveal much about how well this strategy has been implemented.