Ireland 50 Italy 17 'If anyone can do it we can' - Johnny Sexton sounds the rallying cry as Ireland beat Italy in Six Nations
A bonus point win for Ireland in Paris next weekend will secure the Six Nations title for Andy Farrell's men after a convincing win against Italy in Dublin.
Ireland's new boys caught the eye as Will Connors was named as Man of the Match award and Hugo Keenan scored two first-half tries on the wing, with Johnny Sexton now eyeing a four-try win in Paris that would secure the title for Andy Farrell's men.
"We will go to Paris with it all to do but we have a special group. If anyone can do it we can," he told ITV Sport.
"It was scrappy at times as always if you haven't played together in six or seven months. It is a special day for them (the debutants) and their families. That is what we wanted to do to - give them a special memory.
"Now we need to go and just concentrate on our performance because France are an outstanding team."
Ireland scored a try for every month they didn’t play a match due to Covid-19 to keep their title hopes alive and breathe some life into the Andy Farrell era.
With four new caps, two of whom – Hugo Keenan and Will Connors - bagged three tries and the Man of the Match award between them, seven tries and confidence-building performance, this was a decent day’s work for the head coach who has had to endure a strange, frustrating first year in charge.
Still, he’s been around the block long enough to know that he’ll get a much better gauge of where his team are at in the coming weeks with next Saturday’s trip to Paris a far stiffer test than what Italy were able to provide at an empty Aviva Stadium.
Although the injury time concession of a second Italian try reduced their points difference lead over England to 23, they travel to the French capital knowing that a bonus point win will secure the Championship.
Garry Ringrose is a doubt after picking up a facial injury, but otherwise it was mostly good news for the coach who will be pleased with the set-piece, aggressive defence and breakdown work and some excellent attacking play that carved Italy open at times.
Still, it was all very strange as international rugby returned behind closed doors.
They may get used to it as the weeks go on, but there was something very surreal about the pre-match build-up as the players stood in a socially distant line and sang the anthems, paused for a strange moment’s silence for an anti-racism message and then hit some tackle bags as the folks back home were treated to a few ads before the kick-off.
So, it was perhaps understandable that things were a little disjointed in the opening stages and Ireland found themselves down to 14 men after just three minutes when Conor Murray raced back to tackle Marcello Violi after Sebastien Negri caught CJ Stander napping and steamed through a gap.
"We're in the hunt, we should be looking forward to it!"— Virgin Media Sport (@VMSportIE) October 24, 2020
Ireland Head Coach Andy Farrell looking ahead to next week's Paris showdown!
Farrell also revealed Garry Ringrose could be out for 4-6 weeks with a possible fractured jaw. #IREvITA | #GuinnessSixNations |Â #VMTVRugby pic.twitter.com/rI01yZr0Xv
Murray made the tackle, but didn’t roll away and he trooped off debutant Paolo Garbisi nudged his side in front from right in front of the posts.
Despite being a man down, Ireland took over and with Ringrose stepping in at scrum-half as if he’d played there all his life they hit back within minutes.
An Italian offside edged them closer. Ireland attacked off the lineout with Ringrose sniping and eventually Stander powered over Abraham Steyn from close range.
Johnny Sexton converted, before Andrew Porter earned him a scrum penalty to make it 10-3 as Murray returned to the fray.
After taking plenty of flak in the aftermath of Leinster’s defeat to Saracens, Porter was playing like a man possessed while Ireland clearly had licence to go after the Italian ball and poached eight balls in the first-half alone.
Still, Italy made them wait for their second try as they passed up a couple of visits to enemy territory before Keenan marked his debut with a try.
Again, the score originated out of touch with a dominant Irish maul that came down short of the line. Murray shifted the ball left, where Sexton and Bundee Aki found Robbie Henshaw and the centre, on for the injured Ringrose, threw a delicious long pass for his Leinster team-mate who stepped inside Edoardo Padovani to score.
Sexton converted and within seconds Keenan thought he’d doubled his tally, only to have the score chalked off for an earlier James Ryan block that allowed Jacob Stockdale through the initial gap.
Still, the debutant didn’t have to wait long for his second as he became just the eighth player to score a brace on his first cap when he latched on to Murray’s chip to finish a breath-taking length of the field score that started with a Caelan Doris turnover in his own ’22.
Sexton made it 24-3 at the break, but after being so tuned in before half-time Farrell’s men were sloppy in the third quarter and the captain gifted Padovani an intercept try to narrow the margin.
That stirred the hosts, however, Connors got on the scoresheet to cap a brilliant first appearance in green from the back of a dominant maul, before Sexton took a hard line off a Murray pass on the back of brilliant work by Doris to score a try of his own.
He missed the conversion, but the floodgates had been wedged open as the bench made hay and Peter O’Mahony capitalised on a superb Tadhg Beirne turnover to deliver a special try-scoring pass to Aki.
Ross Byrne’s conversion of another maul try from Dave Heffernan made it 50-10, but with points difference likely to be a factor next week they may regret Paolo Garbisi’s injury time try and conversion after they failed to deal with the restart.
We’ll know next week if it’ll be an issue, but for now they can be happy with a decent return to action.
IRELAND – J Stockdale; A Conway, G Ringrose (R Henshaw 28), B Aki, H Keenan; J Sexton (capt) (R Byrne 71), C Murray (J Gibson-Park 67); C Healy (E Byrne 57), R Herring (D Heffernan 51), A Porter (F Bealham 63); T Beirne, J Ryan (U Dillane 63); C Doris (P O’Mahony 67), W Connors, CJ Stander.
ITALY – J Hayward; E Padovani, L Morisi (F Mori 54), C Canna, M Bellini; P Garbisi, M Violi (C Braley 73); D Fischetti (S Ferrari 47), L Bigi (capt) (G Lucchesi 47), G Zilocchi (P Ceccarelli 47); M Lazzaroni (J Meyer 63), N Cannone (D Sisi 47); S Negri (M Mbanda 67), A Steyn, J Polledri.
Ref: M Carley (RFU)