Ireland overwhelmed Italy 50-17 in an empty Aviva Stadium yesterday to bring the long-delayed 2020 Six Nations championship back with a late rush of tries that set up a “Super Saturday” last-day shootout with title rivals France and England.
The originally scheduled clash in March was one of the first major Covid-19 sporting casualties and with the country under tough restrictions again, the hosts secured the bonus-point win needed to give their fans hope of a fourth title in seven years.
Ireland move one point ahead of England and France and while the big ask of a bonus point win in Paris will guarantee them the championship, a narrower victory may not cut it as England go to Rome trailing by a points difference of 23.
“Points difference might not be enough now,” said captain Johnny Sexton, one of six different try scorers that included debutants Hugo Keenan and Will Connors, with winger Keenan grabbing two of them in the first half.
“Now we might have to go over and score four (tries), you never know. We just have to try and win the game, how may wins have we had in Paris over the years, not too many. We’re going to have our work cut out.”
While Ireland were slow to get going in attack, had Conor Murray sin binned after just three minutes and conceded an early three points, they easily dominated the breakdown and never gave the young Italians a sniff after CJ Stander’s opening try.
They began to find their groove half an hour in when the versatile Keenan, who has only scored one try for Leinster, grabbed two in his first 37 minutes of international rugby, the second a length of the park team effort.
Ireland started the second half as they did the first, and the visitors got the reward their improved performance deserved when winger Edoardo Padovani perfectly read a Sexton miss pass to touch down under the posts. Once man-of-the-match Connors grabbed the bonus-point try on 60 minutes, it was a question of how many more as Sexton, Dave Heffernan and Bundee Aki - assisted by an uncharacteristically silky Peter O’Mahony offload - pushed Ireland past 50 points.
Yet in their bid to pile the pressure on England, they gave up seven points at the death as flyhalf Paolo Garbisi marked his debut with a potentially crucial try.
Ireland coach Andy Farrell said after a bonus point victory gave them a shot of winning the championship next week.
“We got out of it what we wanted to, a bonus point win. We’re in the hunt next week. A tall order to go to Paris and win over there,” Farrell told Irish broadcaster Virgin Media.
“We’re going to have to be better in all aspects of our game. They’re a formidable side, especially over there in Paris so we’ll need to do better across the board.”
While Farrell was frustrated his side gave up a potentially crucial last gasp try in their bid to pile the pressure on his native England, he praised their defensive performance and the contributions of four debutants.
Winger Hugo Keenan got two tries and Will Connors the man of the match award as their Leinster team mates Ed Byrne and Jamison Gibson-Park also tasted their first international action off the bench in the empty Aviva Stadium.
“I’m delighted for all four of the lads, they turned up, weren’t frightened of the occasion at all and they played exceptionally well,” Farrell said.
“I’m just gutted that their parents couldn’t be here to see the game, they’ve worked so hard, taken them around the country and they deserved to be here but it is what it is, unfortunately.”
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