Sunday, March 3, 2024

Dan Sheehan double eases superior Ireland to Six Nations win against Italy

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After an encouragingly narrow ­opening defeat by England in Rome, Italy arrived in Dublin in optimistic mood. They left having been crushed by Ireland’s heavy machinery. Dan Sheehan scored two tries for the hosts – as he did when Ireland sealed the grand slam last season – while their multitalented backline was as precise and as fluent as ever.

The reigning Six Nations champions are two from two – top of the table with maximum points – and face a talented but rebuilding Wales side at home next. Supporters may begin to dream of the most emphatic possible response to the painful exit from the Rugby World Cup last year, but no one in Ireland’s camp will be getting ahead of themselves.

Italy were outclassed in every facet, conceding six tries in all and failing to muster a single point. They coughed up a succession of scrum penalties, frequently ceding possession, territory and precious momentum.

Gonzalo Quesada’s side also proved incapable of defending the ruthless driving maul so frequently turned to by Andy Farrell’s relentless cast of power-players. Ireland’s excellence was such that Italy’s campaign should, arguably, be judged on their more winnable fixtures.

Farrell made six changes from the opening victory in Marseille, with the back-row Caelan Doris captaining his country for the first time from ­openside flanker. The half‑back pair of Craig Casey and Jack ­Crowley, meanwhile, showed the easy understanding you may expect from ­Munster teammates and roommates in international camp.

“I think our scrum was man of the match, to be fair. That was a lovely weapon,” Farrell told ITV. “I thought we backed up our lineout per­formance from last week [in ­Marseille] as well.”

Italy started brightly and, when Robbie Henshaw was penalised at a ruck, the visitors had a kickable shot at goal. But it was a horrible scuff off the tee by Paolo Garbisi, and Quesada may immediately have questioned his decision not to start Tommaso Allan.

Ireland were soon becalmed by Crowley’s well-worked score: not only his first try for his country but his first senior try. The fly-half showed impressive persistence to make himself available for a simple offload from Casey after six minutes.

Sheehan, as if to underline Ireland’s physical dominance, chose to run straight through Italy’s full-back, Ange Capuozzo, beyond the try-line for the second after 23 minutes. It was 12‑0 when Crowley converted a score created by his own skill: a ­delightfully sympathetic offload had found Hugo Keenan on the short side, who in turn fed the hooker.

Ireland’s Calvin Nash scores his side’s sixth try. Photograph: Lorraine O’Sullivan/Reuters

Ireland’s next score was about the heavy hitters. Sheehan carried at the back of a maul, which gathered momentum after James Lowe – ­outstanding in attack and defence, and player of the match – added his weight and Jack Conan touched down. It was 19‑0 at half-time.

Italy’s scrum was collapsing, literally and figuratively, and the latest penalty against them handed Ireland their bonus point 10 minutes after the break. Sheehan took the ball again at the back of a maul and his second try was scored with worrying ease from an Italian perspective.

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After a rampaging run down the middle by Keenan, Sheehan narrowly missed out on his hat-trick in the corner due to a superb challenge by Stephen Varney. But it was soon 29‑0 when Lowe hared down the left and forced his way over, despite the attention of Monty Ioane and a couple of Azzurri teammates.

Quesada introduced Ross Vintcent of Exeter off the bench with a little over 10 minutes left – his first international cap – before Calvin Nash’s try, converted by the replacement fly-half Harry Byrne, completed the scoring. Ireland welcome Wales to Dublin in two weeks’ time, on the same day Scotland host England, while Italy go to Lille to face France.

“Of course we knew we were ­playing one of the best teams in the world – maybe the best – and they were going to put us under pressure,” Quesada said, before ­succinctly ­listing the contents of his in-tray.

“We need to improve, we need to have the ball, we need to improve our set piece, we need to improve our defence, and of course what we do with the ball afterwards. Without the ball, it’s going to be tough for us.”

Wales losing a tense encounter against England on Saturday was a result that subverted recent Six Nations themes, while heroic ­failure for Scotland against France was a naggingly familiar feeling for Gregor Townsend’s team. Ireland overpowering Italy in Dublin, though? That was never in doubt.

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