A big win in more ways than one.
reland’s Six Nations campaign is up and running at the third time of asking, as a hugely improved performance saw Greg McWilliams’ side dismantle Italy.
There had been encouraging signs in their opening two defeats to Wales and France, but Ireland stepped it up a notch, as their set-piece fired and the error count significantly lowered.
With a trip to England to come in a fortnight, likely without many of the stars on show in front of 5,039 supporters at Musgrave Park, it was vital Ireland got a win on the board here.
To put this impressive victory into context, Italy are going to the World Cup, Ireland are not, and although the visitors were missing some players, take nothing away from the importance of this win.
“When I took over this role I didn’t know it (the tournament) would be in a different window, I didn’t realise how much attention would be on it to be honest,” McWilliams said.
“When we didn’t perform against France, there was a bit of pressure on, but I think the pressure is on ourselves to perform.
“The more pressure you put on yourself, the better and stronger you will get. The major pressure was on ourselves to perform. It was a good test, and the girls did well.
“There’s a lot more to come. All in all I felt it was a step up from the last two games.”
The fact the bonus point was wrapped up as early as the 51st minute told its own story. If anything, Ireland will feel like they left a lot of scores behind them, as they continue on their journey.
Ireland’s scrum coach Rob Sweeney was unavailable this week, and McWilliams was able to call upon Men’s assistant John Fogarty, who provided valuable experience. The scrum was much more solid than it was a week earlier in France.
Sam Monaghan was outstanding yet again, as her strong carrying regularly put her side on the front foot.
“I just want to give her the ball more,” McWilliams said.
“Our goal is that players come into camp thinking it’s Christmas Eve, and they’re excited to come in. We allow them, hopefully, to be themselves and be able to bring their personality.
“She’s becoming a leader. This girl is someone who has got great potential for us, one of a number of players who are really coming on.”
On the other side of the ball, Jones worked tirelessly in defence, with her big hits fast becoming a trademark of the pocket rocket hooker.
Jones scored one of Ireland’s five tries, with Lucy Mulhall, Eve Higgins and Katie O’Dwyer also dotting down, while Ireland scrum won a penalty try.
McWilliams had made four changes to his team and each of them made a difference, as Hannah O’Connor helped shore up the lineout and added a real edge around the breakdown.
Kathryn Dane was a calming presence at scrum-half, while Beibhinn Parsons and Haney also played their part.
It was Italy who started brighter and when Djougang was pinged for going off her feet, the visitors opened the scoring, courtesy of Beatrice Rigoni’s kick from in front of the posts.
After a couple of wobbles at the set-piece, the lineout finally fired and Ireland showed just how dangerous they can be when they nail the basics.
Ireland simplified the call and a powerful rolling maul was stopped just short of the line.
But Ireland found their edge, as they recycled the ball wide for Nicole Cronin, who threw a delightful skip pass for Mulhall to finish well midway through the opening half.
There was no doubt about Ireland’s second try five minutes before the break.
The home side had already gone close through Cronin and with Monaghan punching holes in the Italian defence, the pressure eventually told, as Elisa Giordano was sent to the bin for repeated infringements.
The maul again caused major damage, with Jones getting on the end of another well-worked set-piece to give Ireland a fully deserved 10-3 half-time lead.
Opening the second-half O’Connor did brilliantly to win the breakdown turnover, and when the Italians were far too slow to react to Dane’s kick, Higgins made them pay, by running clear to score her side’s third. This time Cronin nailed the conversion to open up a commanding 14-point lead.
Ireland were rampant and there was no let up as they secured the bonus point just 11 minutes after the restart.
As if to underline the major improvements at scrum time, Ireland obliterated Italy, and the referee didn’t hesitate to run under the posts and award the penalty try.
McWilliams emptied his bench and handed a debut to 19-year-old back-row Aoife Wafer, who was yellow-carded shortly after coming on.
That allowed Italy to score a late consolation try through Melissa Bettoni, but not to be outdone, Ireland had the final say.
O’Dwyer was quickest to react to a loose ball and the replacement prop skillfully pirouetted over the line to spark celebrations and a fitting end to an important win for this team.
Ireland – L Mulhall; B Parsons (A Doyle 59), E Higgins, S Flood, A-L Murphy Crowe (E Breen 63); N Cronin, K Dane (A Reilly 70); L Djougang (C Pearse, 65), N Jones (E Hooban 61), C Haney (K O’Dwyer 59); N Fryday (capt) (B Hogan 59), S Monaghan; D Wall (A Wafer 59), E McMahon, H O’Connor.
ITALY – V Ostuni Minuzzi; M Furlan, A D’Inca, B Rigoni, M Magatti; V Madia (S Stefan h-t), S Barattin; G Maris (V Vecchini 59), M Bettoni (E Stecca 76), L Gai (S Seye 76); S Tounesi (A Margotti 73), V Fedrighi; Veronese, I Locatelli (A Frangipani 53), E Giordano.
REF – A Groizeleau (France).