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Matt Williams: Clinical Ireland operating at a much higher level than Italy

Ireland can only be undone if they show disrespect to their Italian opponents and under Andy Farrell’s leadership that’s highly unlikely

In rugby, as in life, respect is an earned commodity. And it’s fair to say that each and every one of the Six Nations teams have earned the right to be respected.

As Phil Gould, the highly successful Australian Rugby League coach put it: “There is no place for disrespect in elite sport. If you show disrespect, you invite disappointment into your life.”

The only way to display respect towards your opponent is by playing to the maximum of your capabilities. When Ireland piled 80 points on to Romania at the recent World Cup, they showed their opponents that they were worthy of a maximum effort.

As Ireland meet the lowly-ranked Italians, they are also facing a side with a complex recent history of one step forwards, two steps back.


When Conor O’Shea was appointed at the coach of Italy in 2016, he brought Stephen Aboud, another Irishman, with him. After decades of dedicated work at the IRFU, Aboud set up an Italian academy that I considered to be the best-structured system in world rugby.

Like all quality national plans, it was a long-term project that started to bear fruit with the emergence of young players like Italian captain Michele Lamaro on to the senior team.

When Kieran Crowley became the head coach in 2020, he understood that he was benefiting from O’Shea’s strategic vision and Aboud’s excellence as a coach, organiser and mentor. The team’s performances skyrocketed. Wins over Wales and Australia were secured and the Azzurri pushed France to their limits.

Italy’s long desert crossing seemed to finally be reaching its destination.

Then, without warning, the Italians did a U-turn and wandered back into the desert. A new administration began to dismantle the very academy system that had finally started to produce international quality players. The rest of the rugby world looked on in disbelief.

Crowley spoke publicly of how appalled he was at the decisions the Italian union was making and his position became untenable. And with all the discord behind the scenes, the team became a shadow of itself.

How players tackle and defend is a window into their hearts. A barometer of team cohesion, spirit and their collective resolve towards accomplishing their mission. At the last World Cup it was clear that the Italians’ internal resolve had crumbled.

Italy’s commitment to the physical aspects of tackling and defending against France and New Zealand was an embarrassment.

Like the Wallabies, the Italian performances are only the symptom. The real problem lies in the systems below the national team. Just as Ireland’s current rude good health has its roots in the vibrancy of their schools, juniors, academies, clubs and provincial teams, so the Italian and Australian national teams are so poor because their foundations are built on sand.

Both Joe Schmidt, the new Wallabies coach, and Gonzalo Quesada, the new coach of Italy are experienced rugby specialists who, like all national team coaches, can only lead the players their respective systems have produced.

But countries like Italy and Australia have deeply flawed long-term elite player pathway systems, forcing their national coaches to work with short-term solutions to long-term problems.

In coaching terms, it is like placing a sticking plaster over a shark bite.

To Quesada’s credit, last week against England the Italians played some excellent rugby in the first half as they exploited the vast open spaces provided on the flanks of the new English defensive system. While Felix Jones was defensive coach of South Africa the results were outstanding. His first fling implementing the same defensive system for England was less successful.

The best hope for England is that their new rush defence will bed in and succeed after a considerable amount of game time. However, Jones may find that a system that is coached successfully to a team of highly talented players is not transferable to a less talented bunch. The kindest description of the new English defensive system is that it is a work in progress.

The one major similarity that the English and Springbok defensive lines have in common is that they are both glaringly offside multiple times across every match.

I can see the Wales coach, Warren Gatland, bombarding referee James Doleman, who is officiating at Twickenham, with streams of footage showing English defenders starkly offside at the ruck. England might well be operating on the presumption that ‘the Boks have gotten away with it for years, so why can’t we?’ And they may be right.

With all of that in mind, it is hard to truly evaluate the Italian performance from last week but, in the second half, all their mental frailties of the past re-emerged. A pile of unforced errors, dropped passes and dumb penalties torpedoed a competent first-half effort.

This stood in stark contrast to the mental strength displayed by Ireland at the Stade Velodrome last week. Their powerful mindset was best personified by two of their most inexperienced players. Joe McCarthy powered his side to once again lay bare the myth that the Irish forwards cannot overcome big packs. Jack Crowley put several early unforced errors behind him to perform creditably in the hostile environment that is the Velodrome.

Ireland are returning to their much-loved home patch, where they have been undefeated for so long, with the momentum of a great victory in Marseille propelling them towards the possibility of back-to-back Grand Slams. The only way Ireland can be undone is if they show disrespect to their Italian opponents and take them as already beaten.

I don’t believe that this excellent Irish team, under the leadership of Andy Farrell, are green enough to fall into that trap.