Italy versus Ireland (And the World)

Laurie Wilcockson 16 March 2022
Image Credit: Planet Rugby

No one would have expected Italy to win their game against Ireland in Round Three of the Six Nations. In fact, even as someone who was devotedly optimistic about Italy’s prospects this year, I thought this game was going to be their biggest write-off. Everything about Ireland plays into Italy’s weaknesses. Their unity, their work rate, their set-pieces, and most importantly their experience. There are holes to pick in the Irish team, but those holes are not the sort that Italy is good at exploiting. And yet, the main takeaway from Sunday’s game was not Irish brilliance nor Italian vulnerability. The focus instead was on the incident involving the red card, and Italy’s team being reduced from 15 to 13 men.

Italy is a team of brilliant individual players. In his club career at Montpelier, Paolo Garbisi has stolen the fly-half jersey from Australian prodigy Handré Pollard. Captain Michele Lamaro is on track to be the first player in Nations *history* to make more than a hundred tackles in a tournament (a tournament which, just to really hit home, is nearly 140 years old). But they lack experience and unity. Ireland is a team with few standalone individuals, but its main strength lies in its teamwork and its trust. Nearly every play they make is a pre-rehearsed trick from the set-piece, practised to perfection, and against an Italian team good at the quick ball and spontaneous disruption at the breakdown, that will do the trick fine. And indeed, for the twenty minutes that was effectively the sum of the game. The Irish team we saw was not them at their finest; it was them doing what they needed to do, playing simply and boringly all the way to the try-line. And it did work. They were 7-0 up within four minutes.

At the twenty-minute mark, though, a monumental shift took place. The game was 7-3, just after a beautiful Padovani penalty from the halfway mark saw them chasing the Irish try and very much in the game. Then, in the 19th minute Hame Faiva, the reserve hooker, received a red card for a dangerously high tackle. It was a fair red card (although I’m not going to even dare open the can of worms that was Ryan Baird doing exactly the same thing without consequence), and in the modern game, the only way to prevent incidents like this is by being as harsh as the referee was, even where there’s no malicious intent. Faiva took the card in good grace, despite the fact that Italy going down to 14 men was effectively conceding the game in its entirety, before it was then revealed that Lamaro’s side had to rid themselves of another player, bringing them down to 13 men. The reason for this was a rarely seen law in test rugby that dictates that, if a team is unable to provide a full scrum, they must substitute a player in the backline for a forward, as well as sending off another player as a consequence of the failure to make the scrum. Furthermore, because the player brought on isn’t a specialist at that position, scrums had to be uncontested without any shoving. So now, the worst team in Six Nations history was against one of the title contenders with two fewer men and weren’t able to contest the scrum, despite it being the half of the field where they had the right amount of players.

Of course, this made the game a foregone conclusion, and it became a matter of just how many tries the Irish team could score. Nine, it turned out. Obviously, captain Lamaro was massively frustrated, but despite this, he was consistently polite with the ref. The Italian team never lost heart. The Irish team, too, to their credit remained goodwilled. They did not patronise the Italian team by ever presuming to take the game for granted. Instead, they played dutifully well, giving little Michael Lowry, everyone’s new favourite plucky Irishman, not one but two tries on his Ireland debut.

Usually, in games between two teams on very different levels, it’s an opportunity for them to both show what they’re capable of; you expected Ireland to show off their set piece work, and from Italy, you expected a few flash moments of Monty Ioane line breaks or Padovani penalty kicks, enough to make you think ‘maybe this team could win next year’. This game and that rule took away the opportunity for both teams to do this. However, it did give us a chance to see the true heart of the Italian team.

A good comparison that same week was Scotland in their game against France: France bullied them, and the Scots, not least Finn Russell, got stroppy, sloppy, and clearly couldn’t wait for the game to end. The Italians do not do this. This is in spite of being so young – Stephen Varney is only twenty, ten years the junior of his opposite Irish number Jamison Gibson-Park and is expected to be a world-class scrum-half. Paolo Garbisi and Michele Lamaro have between them only twenty-nine senior international caps, and they’re singlehandedly expected to run the attack and defence against Johnny Sexton’s game management, a man with nearly quadruple that. They’re a team on the up, not least because the entire team is barely out of school. Ireland, meanwhile, are at their peak, but at this stage in the world cup cycle, it’s a dangerous place to be. France schooled them in Round 2, and France are still looking like they’ve yet to show us their best. Ireland has a new generation of players for sure – Sheehan and Hansen are perhaps two of the biggest breakout stars so far this tournament. But they also have too many old, predictable, and soon-to-retire names, of whom the most important by far is captain Johnny Sexton. Now thirty-six, he keeps being injured – can he really be expected to lead them through an entire World Cup tournament next year? I guess we’ve got a year to find out.

Overall, there is little to learn from the Italy Ireland game, apart from maybe that there are some stupid laws in rugby. We learned that the Italians, not content with being faced by some of the best opposition in the world, also managed to face them two men down. And somehow, despite the amount they lost by, looked like they’d done very well, and made the best of a bad situation. For the tournament, a loss. But for the rugby history books? Maybe we can call it an Italian victory.