By Tadhg Peavoy
After defeat to England at Twickenham, Ireland needed to come out against Italy and show that they were, a) capable of scoring tries in the last two matches of the championship, and b) put Italy to the sword confidently.
Ireland played expansively from the outset against Italy
They did both those things at Aviva Stadium, and as a result they can rightly feel that they have what it takes to go to Paris and record their first win there since 2000.
The worry after defeat to England was that Ireland would go into their shells and struggle against Italy, meaning confidence would be low going into round five against France.
Thankfully, for all supporters of the men in green, from the very outset of the clash with the Azzurri this was not the case.
From the get-go, Joe Schmidt’s team spread the ball wide and hugged the tramlines with their attacks.
This was best demonstrated by putting 21 phases together within the first five minutes of the tie. In doing so, Ireland showed that when they want to they can retain the ball as well as any other national side in the world, and with the likes of Iain Henderson and Jamie Heaslip also popping up on the wings they also showed they are not afraid to commit back-rowers as strike runners.
This all augurs well for those that feel Ireland were shackled under Declan Kidney and never played the expansive game plan they are capable of. They are beginning to fulfill their promise and can kick on to win at least one Six Nations title, and potentially reach a Rugby World Cup semi-final.
It’s early days but this latest performance was very positive.
Sexton was superb on Saturday
Racing Métro’s Johnny Sexton is crucial to Ireland doing well against France next weekend. In his performance against Italy he showed why he is rated as the best out-half in Europe, and also why he is the second-highest paid rugby player in the world.
He just makes moments out of nothing and has the pace and power to change games; he has these skills more than any of the other starting stand-offs in the tournament.
The game’s opening try, when Sexton looped around Brian O’Driscoll to collect a return pass, and glide past Gonzalo Garcia showed him at his best.
The interplay from the Sexton-O’Driscoll combo, and the space created by Gordon D’Arcy drifting wide and bringing Michele Campagnaro with him showed an understanding that has come from years of playing together at Leinster.
If those three players combine like that against France, then you would be very positive about Ireland’s chances of dominating the French midfield.
Ireland’s link play
The Irish link play was the best in the championship this weekend, which was exemplified by Andrew Trimble’s first-half try.
Ireland worked their way into the Italy 22 with Paul O’Connell, O’Driscoll, Sexton and Dave Kearney keeping the ball alive with fantastic precision.
O’Driscoll’s wide pass out to Trimble displayed excellent vision and the winger proved a lot of his critics wrong by jinking over for a well-taken try.
But Italy in this case, as for much of the match, defended badly.
Leonardo Sarto came in off his wing in this move, allowing Trimble the freedom to move down the flank and into the Italy 5, where he only had a flat-footed Tito Tebaldi as the last defender to beat. That type of basic error is punished at international level.
France - although they are not a vintage edition this term - will not allow this kind of space to develop out wide.
Ireland will need to be prepared to bring more support runners out to aid the wingers and ensure they can offload if needs be, and keep the move alive if Les Bleus get across to make the necessary cover tackles.
The Ireland pack is primed
Playing Italy is one of the biggest tests for any pack in the Six Nations. Ireland’s eight – and its replacements – showed they are in superb form heading into the last round.
The Irish pack won eight of their own scrums, and lost none; that’s always a big deal when playing Italy.
And the lineout continues to function like a dream: 12 successful lineouts were offset by just one that didn’t come off.
In addition, Ireland conceded only two penalties all game. Again, against a team that disrupts the breakdown area as effectively as Italy do, this is a fantastic achievement.
This is backed up by the fact Ireland won nine turnovers; Italy won eight. Again, Ireland outdid the Italian pack in one of their most effective areas. Yes, Sergio Parisse - Italy's talisman – was not playing, but you can only dominate what you play against and Ireland did just that.
In addition to all of this, the pack was superb in capitalising on go-forward ball. When Eoin Reddan burrowed to the line in the 53rd minute, Cian Healy was expertly placed to seize the momentum and drive over.
The same could be same of Jack McGrath’s late try. Devin Toner did the grunt work by dragging to the Italy 5, and McGrath, like Healy, was ready to go quickly on the drive on the edge of the breakdown.
Ireland showed strength in depth
Another area of concern going into the championship was whether Ireland had the strength in depth to bring on all their replacements and still finish teams off. Saturday was very encouraging in that respect as Ireland never let up and drove home their superiority.
Even with O’Driscoll, their chief playmaker, off the pitch, Ireland showed superb vision and a willingness to spread wide early, as well as an ability to finish moves with clever decision making.
Sean Cronin taking advantage of a half-gap outside of Campagnaro was a fine example of this. He didn’t go for the barge over the centre, instead he used his pace to go around the back, and capitalise on his fresher legs to make a difference.
Fergus McFadden’s try; however, showed that Ireland didn’t just go wide eternally and that they varied the game plan when needed to surprise Italy.
In this case, by punching holes around the breakdown until a gap appeared and an Italian – this time tighthead Alberto de Marchi in a mistmatch – missed a first-up tackle.
Ireland must repeat these facets to do damage in Paris
Add all the above elements together and you get Ireland at their irresistible best.
One: A superb 10-12-13 axis; two: the best outhalf in Europe on current form; three: link play of the calibre expected to win a major international tournament; four: solid scrums and lineouts; five: excellent hole punching and support play.
Can France outdo Ireland's strengths?
The big question is can France match Ireland? On the basis of the last four rounds one would be inclined to say no.
Their midfield has been a shapeless mess, with their best player, first centre Wesley Fofana, out injured for the rest of the tournament.
Outhalf Jules Plisson has been average at directing and influencing the game.
Surprisingly France have not displayed the creativity they normally have in link play or in keeping the ball alive.
Their scrum and lineouts have been poor; against Scotland they won only 50% of their own scrums and lost an incredible eight lineouts, winning just six.
The returning Dimitri Szarzewski and Louis Picamoles will hope to improve these stats against Ireland.
If Scotland had shown any sort of composure in the last quarter at Murrayfield, they would have beaten France, and changed the whole complexion of the last weekend.
But they didn’t, and France showed that despite all their foibles, they still have the courage to hang on in games and win them late on. As the cliché goes – that is the sign of a good team.
And while Saint-André's team is under-firing, their players are still straight out of the top drawer.
If both teams perform at the same levels this weekend, then Ireland will win the Six Nations.
But, France are a different beast at home, as they showed when defeating England and Italy in rounds one and two of the championship, and one thing you can be almost certain of is that they will be much, much improved next weekend.