Stander to the fore as Ireland get back on track with dismantling of Italy

Murray Kinsella reports from Rome

WITH RORY BEST missing at Stadio Olimpico yesterday, Ireland needed leaders to step up to the mark and Joe Schmidt was not left disappointed during their record-setting 63-10 win.

Jamie Heaslip assumed the captaincy and delivered one of several outstanding individual performances, but CJ Stander was the clear man of the match as he thunderously led his team through the Italians.

Stander was man of the match for Ireland. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Schmidt watched on in pleasure as the Munster flanker scored three of Ireland’s nine tries, the cherries on top of a performance that included team-leading tallies of 22 carries and 10 tackles from the blindside.

Stander even turned provider when his sliced kick bounced up for fellow hat-trick gatherer Craig Gilroy.

“I thought CJ was really good today, even the try-scoring and tactical kicking aside,” said Schmidt afterwards. “Defensively, I thought he got off the line and got through a real volume of defensive work.

“A lot of what he did didn’t result in tries for him, but resulted in positive outcomes for us. He’s a really positive contributor, a really willing contributor and the one thing I would say is that we have a back row with big engines.

“They put themselves about, the amount of times they have involvements in games is very high and it helps us negotiate our way around the pitch.”

Indeed, it was dominant stuff from Ireland’s back row on an excellent day for the visitors, with Sean O’Brien also producing some important plays.

With the sun shining in Rome and the city hosting an influx of jovial Irish supporters, there was a major feel-good factor for Ireland as they boosted their confidence ahead of the home Six Nations clash with France in a fortnight’s time.

After the disappointment of defeat in Murrayfield in round one, this felt like Schmidt’s side getting back to somewhere close to the levels of November.

Simon Zebo hugs Keith Earls after the victory. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

To manage the late loss of Best to illness was a further encouragement for Ireland, who didn’t seem to miss their captain in the slightest. Early penalty decisions to go for tries rather than the posts underlined the positive mindset.

“We had momentum and it’s a feeling out there in terms of decision-making whether you take the points or go for a scrum, but I thought the position and time and score on the different occasions, we backed ourselves,” said stand-in skipper Heaslip.

“It was pretty much player-led, as we always are. We have Rory as our captain but we have a really good leadership group that are tight and we talked all week as a group on the different messages we wanted.

“In the last 24 hours, we just talked about actions. The guys in the leadership group and everyone in the squad – especially the bench – fitted in, and led by their actions.”

Conor O’Shea’s Italy were, of course, dreadfully poor opposition. Their defensive organisation was disastrous, while their kicking game invited pressure and they barely fired a shot in attack apart from a penalty try after a close-range maul was collapsed.

Perhaps Ireland didn’t really learn too much in this facile victory, but Schmidt pointed to the valuable experience gained by debutant Niall Scannell and replacement hooker James Tracy.

“We learned that a few more guys have got some experience and that it’s important to keep on investing in them. It’s great for Niall to make his Test debut and those first few scrums in the first few minutes went really well, so he really stepped up to the mark. He hit the mark in the lineout really well as well.

“I thought James Tracy in his second Test match, his Six Nations debut, we learned that guys will grow and their confidence will grow if they get into the right frame of mind with the right players around them.

Rob Kearney goes up for the high ball at Stadio Olimpico. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“They’ll feel more comfortable at this level because it is quite suffocating, Six Nations rugby. Some of them played a bit in the autumn and were a little bit taken aback by the level last week [in Scotland] and while it wasn’t quite the same today, there was still some really physical aspects to the game.”

The bonus-point victory left Ireland second in the Six Nations table overnight, with Scotland to play France today, and they are certainly back in contention for the title.

Next up is the visit of les Bleus to Dublin on 25 February, and though they have reignited their title hopes, Heaslip and his team-mates won’t be getting carried away yet.

“I’m not looking too far down the line,” said Heaslip. “We’re going to enjoy tonight. There’s a lot of friends, a lot of family over, a lot of the lads’ wives and partners.

“There’s a lot of sacrifice that goes into that, having wives and girlfriends over on Valentine’s weekend, save a couple of quid!

“We get back into camp on Wednesday in Monaghan and I’m sure Joe will have plenty for us. Until then, we’ll enjoy the moment.”

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