There may be more silver in his hair but there was a youthful enthusiasm about how captain and now elder statesman of Irish rugby, Jonathan Sexton, embraced debutant Hugo Keenan upon scoring the first of a brace of tries en route to a seven-try win over Italy. It was a result which leaves Ireland with their Six Nations destiny – albeit still with a bonus point win against France in Paris next week - in their own hands.
The celebration of 35-year-old Sexton with his 24 year-old Leinster team-mate for the second try, after CJ Stander opened the scoring, was a moment which could perhaps be a perfect snapshot of the point in Ireland’s transition under Andy Farrell in his maiden season as head coach. It was a meeting of established talent and new blood alongside what looks to be some variation in the game plan – with more offloading among the changes.
In the build up to the game Farrell had spoke poignantly about making the occasion as memorable as possible for Ireland’s four debutants – starters Keenan and back row and player of the match Will Connors, and from the bench prop Ed Byrne and Jamison Gibson-Park – due to their families not being able to join in their celebrations at the Aviva Stadium. There is added meaning beyond the crowds being absent as Ireland has gone into a second full national lockdown – the Republic for six weeks.
Speaking after the victory Sexton also seemed to be struck by the strange new normal the new caps found them in. They certainly made their mark on the Test arena, in particular Keenan and Connors. “I am proud of the effort of the lads, it was outstanding for the lads on debut like Will and Hugo,” said Sexton.
“And it was great for Ed Byrne and Jamieson who made their debuts off the bench. I am delighted for them; it is a special day for all of them and their families. Ultimately, that is what we wanted to do. We wanted to give them a special memory.”
— ITV Rugby (@ITVRugby) October 24, 2020
In the opening minutes it looked like 20-year-old Italian fly half Paolo Garbisi – the first player born in the year 2000 to play in the Six Nations – would be creating some good moments for the Azzurri – who will be yet again guaranteed the wooden spoon – as he kicked the opening points of the game. And with Sexton’s long time half-back partner Conor Murray sent to the sin bin by England’s Matthew Carley after just three minutes for a professional foul it looked like Italy could be given a chance to end their run of 25 Six Nations games without victory. But it was not to be.
Once Stander went over - who along with Cian Healy who were the only forwards with more than 30 Test appearances among what looked like a relatively callow Ireland pack – the hosts were in the driving seat.
Without the roar of the crowd, Farrell believes that his side built their own momentum via their defensive efforts, which included obliterating Italy at the breakdown. “As I said before the game, you have to make your own atmosphere and I thought we managed to do that,” said the Englishman. “I thought our defence in parts was outstanding – the energy and the ferocity of the line speed and collision work, we generated our own energy through that and we got good turn over ball on the back of it.”
One aspect where Farrell seems to be putting his signature on the side he inherited from Joe Schmidt was through playing with more width, as well as players taking more chances with off-loading.
Keenan, who has impressed for Leinster at full-back, showed why his selection on the wing made good sense with his two scores which came in the first half. The Blackrock College product showed exceptional pace on the wing and a real confidence in taking his chance to score – which could be credited to his time spent playing for Ireland Sevens side. The player who was also a talented Gaelic footballer could have scored a hat-trick after Ulster’s Jacob Stockdale created what looked to be a solid try – only for second row James Ryan to have been adjudicated to have made a forward pass in the build up.
Ireland sealed their bonus point in the second half via a try from Connors who had a storming performance in the contact area. Interestingly the 24 year-old is another Leinster player who bided his time with the national sevens side. Ireland rounded out their try scoring through Sexton, Bundee Aki and replacement hooker Dave Heffernan.
The Aki try will be of particular interest in how it came from a daring off-load from Peter O’Mahony who came off the bench. Ireland’s points difference was pinned back from tries from wing Edoardo Padovani and a last gasp solo effort from Garbisi.
Scoring: 0-3 Garbisi pen; 5-3 Stander try, 7-3 Sexton con; 10-3 Sexton pen; 15-3 Keenan try, 17-3 Sexton con; 22-3 Keenan try, 24-3 Sexton con; 24-8 Padovani try, 24-10 Garbisi con; 29-10 Connors try, 31-10 Sexton con; 36-10 Sexton try, 41-10 Aki try, 43-10 Sexton con; 48-10 Heffernan try, 50-10 Byrne con; 50-15 Garbisi try, 50-17 Garbisi con,
Ireland: J Stockdale; A Conway, G Ringrose (R Henshaw 27), B Aki, H Keenan, J Sexton (R Byrne 71), C Murray (J Gibson Park 67); C Healy (E Byrne 56), R Herring (D Heffernan 50), 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 53), C Canna, M Bellini, P Garbisi, M Violi (C Braley 71); D Fischetti (S Ferrari 46), L Bigi (G Lucchesi 46), G Zilocchi (P Ceccarelli 46), M Lazzaroni (Johan Meyer 63), N Cannone (D Sisi 47), S Negri (M Mbanda 67), B Steyn, J Polledri.
Referee: Matthew Carley (England)
And that's all the live reaction from me today
But join Ben Coles for live coverage of the Premiership Final here
Quite the stat...
2000 - Paolo Garbisi is the first player born in the 2000s to score a try in the Six Nations. Baby. https://t.co/U4BkHRsfaV
— OptaJonny (@OptaJonny) October 24, 2020
Here is the updated Six Nations standings after this match
Ireland will be very happy with a number of performances
Jacob Stockdale was excellent at fullback, Hugo Keenan was very impressive on debut as was man of the match Will Connors.
Ireland very much in contention to become Six Nations Champions.
Here is the impressive Garbisi score right at the death
Ireland concede on the stroke of full-time. Italy with another consolation try and conversion to cut the deficit to 33
Watch Ireland vs. Italy LIVE
📱 https://t.co/WDQLrslCWl#ITVRugby #IREvITA pic.twitter.com/bAWbD5CBqE
— ITV Rugby (@ITVRugby) October 24, 2020
FULL TIME: Ireland 50 Italy 17
Ireland did what they needed, securing a bonus-point win and plenty of points. Andy Farrell will be reasonably happy.
TRY! Garbisi Ireland 50 Italy 17
Italy win the ball back from the restart. They go through the phases before the 20-year-old fly-half scores an amazing solo score on debut. Garbisi steps around two defenders, throwing a dummy before scoring under the posts. Cracking score.
And that is that.
TRY! Heffernan Ireland 50 Italy 10
Ireland win the ball back once more, then making yards on half-way. They are awarded a penalty. A perfect kick from Byrne will give Ireland a lineout on the five metre line.
A driving maul is formed and they power over the line, Heffernan the man in control of the ball. Byrne takes it quickly so the game can restart.
77 min: Ireland 43 Italy 10
Ferrari wins a turnover for Italy on their 22, Ross Byrne holding on. Italy clear their lines.
Will Connors is named man of the match. He has been very good today. Living up to his reputation as a tenacious tackler.
75 min: Ireland 43 Italy 10
Italy win a free kick at the scrum, electing to scrum once more. They go wide and Padovani is held up by Henshaw. The well executed choke tackle means it will be a scrum to Ireland to restart.
Ireland win a free kick and take it quickly. Stockdale bursts through the Italian defence, offloading to Keenan. Ireland work through the phases, making their way towards the Italy 22.
72 min: Ireland 43 Italy 10
Italy kick long and Stander carries it back. Byrne, on for Sexton, spreads the ball to his backs. Keenan spills the ball after a half-break from Connors.
TRY! Aki Ireland 43 Italy 10
Both sides are ringing the changes with the game wrapped up, Gibson-Park among them. Ireland make a break again from kick-off but Conway's kick through rolls into touch.
Italy maul the ball out of their 22 before losing control of it. Ireland then break right, O'Mahony produces a stunning offload to Aki allowing him to score in the corner.
Three tries in quick succession! Sexton adds another two points.
TRY! Sexton Ireland 36 Italy 10
Ireland secure the restart and work their way up the pitch, shifting from side to side. Henshaw breaks through, offloading to Keenan who does the same to Stander.
Doris then bursts through a hole and is only just dragged down short of the line. Italy's defence does not have time to reset and Sexton crashes over off a short pass. Far too easy!
The Ireland captain misses the conversion.
TRY! Connors Ireland 31 Italy 10
Polledri gives away a penalty after Ireland form a maul. The ball is stuck back in the corner.
Doris claims it and a powerful maul is formed. Italy cannot slow it down. Try for Connors on debut, who was controlling the ball at the back. Bonus-point secured.
Sexton adds another conversion.
59 min: Ireland 24 Italy 10
Ireland win the ball back, then working through the phases, drawing a penalty just inside the Italian half. Sexton puts the ball in the corner. Ireland are still chasing a fourth try and a vital bonus-point.
57 min: Ireland 24 Italy 10
Well, that try came from nowhere. Game on? Italy clear their lines and Keenan returns it before offloading to Ryan.
Sexton attempts a grubber but it rolls out on the Italian 10-metre line.
TRY! Padovani Ireland 24 Italy 10
Ireland go left from the scrum. Sexton throws a miss pass and it is picked off masterfully by Padovani. He sprints under the posts unopposed. A brilliant read and superb take with an outstretched arm.
The extras are added.
54 min: Ireland 24 Italy 3
Italy win the lineout on this occasion. The ball is moved from side to side but no penetration can be found. A forward pass is then thrown. Excellent defensive set from Ireland, forcing an error.
Federico Mori is on for his debut for Italy.
52 min: Ireland 24 Italy 3
Canna kicks the ball into the Irish 22. Ryan pinches the lineout, however. Murray kicks clear but he fails to find touch. Healy is then penalised at the breakdown, allowing Italy to put the ball back into the Irish 22.
50 min: Ireland 24 Italy 3
Poor passing from the back of the scrum forces Italy back. Porter then gives away a penalty at the breakdown on the Irish 10-metre line.
48 min: Ireland 24 Italy 3
Italy drive a maul up the pitch, before box-kicking high. Keenan takes it well. Sexton then dinks the ball to Conway but the balls ends up rolling into touch.
Gianmarco Lucchesi, Simone Ferrari, Pietro Ceccarelli and David Sisi are all on as the entire Italian front-row and one lock is replaced.
Italy win their lineout but cannot get any go forward. The ball is sent into the sky and Stockdale spills it under pressure. Scrum to Italy on the edge of Ireland's 22.
46 min: Ireland 24 Italy 3
Garbisi shanks his exit, gaining minimal distance. Lineout to Ireland on the edge of the Italy 22. They are one try away from a bonus-point.
Ireland work into the middle of the field, Porter and Stander carrying powerfully. Polledri then wins a vital penalty at the breakdown, Ireland penalised for holding on.
44 min: Ireland 24 Italy 3
Violi is caught at the base by Connors, killing the momentum of the attack. Italy send it long and Stockdale returns it.
The two sides exchange kicks, Ireland winning the territory battle after Sexton executes a deft kick into the corner.
42 min: Ireland 24 Italy 3
Ireland run the ball out from the restart, breaking out of the 22 via Aki. Murray then sends a box-kick high which is knocked on in the air by an Irish hand.
Scrum to Italy on half-way.
Second half is underway
Italy get the game restarted.
Here we go
The players are back out on the pitch.
Italy have been a little disappointing
They need to keep hold of the ball. Jake Polledri and Sebastian Negri are carrying in the tight but keep getting isolated.
If things do not improve, this could turn into a rather large scoreline.
Here is Hugo Keenan's second try on debut
— ITV Rugby (@ITVRugby) October 24, 2020
Italy started brightly, but...
Ireland have been dominant ever since. Italy cannot maintain possession, giving away far too many penalties at the breakdown.
Keenan has looked sharp for Ireland while Connors has been industrious in defence. Sexton is quietly having a very good game too.
HALF TIME: Ireland 24 Italy 3
Italy hold onto the ball until the clock turns red, then kicking it out to end the half.
39 min: Ireland 24 Italy 3
Ireland clear their lines from the restart, via the booming left boot of Stockdale.
Ringrose is off permanently after failing his HIA, Henshaw remains on. Ireland work their way up the pitch, Keenan making a half-break before Sexton nudges it in behind. The ball trickles out for a lineout to Italy in their 22.
TRY! Keenan Ireland 24 Italy 3
Doris breaks away, passing to Murray who kicks it in behind. Keenan wins the race to the ball and scores again. The TMO is checking it. Will he have another ruled out? No, it is all good this time. A second for Keenan on debut. It was a perfect kick from Murray.
Sexton adds the extras for a tight angle once more.
35 min: Ireland 17 Italy 3
Canna kicks the ball into the Irish 22, a maul is then formed. It starts rolling forward slowly before being held up 10 metres out. The forwards break off and carry but they are rebuffed by the Irish defence.
Polledri drives forward, they are just metres out now. Negri then takes it on before Polledri carries once more. Doris pinches the ball at the breakdown and Ireland counter...
TRY RULED OUT!
Stockdale clears the restart long. Italy return the favour. Stockdale collects and carves through the Italian defence before passing to Keenan who sprints in for a second try in just minutes! What a debut!
The TMO is checking for a block that led to the Stockdale break. NO TRY! Ryan made a block that led to the break. Subtle, but not subtle enough from the lock...
TRY! Keenan Ireland 17 Italy 3
Italy do well to hold up the Ireland maul. The backs are then given the ball. It reaches Keenan who steps inside a defender to score a try on debut right in the corner! Lovely finish from the Leinster man.
Sexton nails a tricky conversion.
29 min: Ireland 10 Italy 3
Henshaw is on for Ringrose, who is off for an HIA. Ireland return Italy's kick, Hayward runs it back and another penalty is given away at the breakdown. Sexton puts it into the corner once more.
27 min: Ireland 10 Italy 3
Ireland spill the ball in the maul, a poor mistake in a great area. Italy clears long, Stockdale returns it with a kick.
Some kick tennis ensues before Hayward opts to run it back with little success. Back to the kicking exchange which concludes after Conway shanks one into touch on half-way.
25 min: Ireland 10 Italy 3
Ireland win their ball, passing out to Conway who makes a couple of metres. Aki then breaks through a tackle, making plenty of metres in the process. Ringrose then nudges in behind, earning another handy chunk of territory.
Steyn is then pinged at the lineout, Sexton opts to stick the ball in the corner.
23 min: Ireland 10 Italy 3
Aki spills the ball and Murray picks it up in front of him. Offside. Penalty to Italy on half-way.
Italy set up a maul once more, but it goes to ground. Ireland will restart with the put-in at the scrum. Porter did a superb job to disrupt the maul there.
21 min: Ireland 10 Italy 3
Italy form a maul from the lineout before going wide to Padovani who makes a half-break. Polledri then carries but he is isolated. Connors, on debut, wins the penalty. Fischetti went off his feet to try and remove him.
20 min: Ireland 10 Italy 3
Aki is pinged for a high tackle on Hayward as he fell to ground. Penalty to Italy on their own 10-metre line. Referee Matt Carley is having a look at it on the big screen. Did Aki wrap his arms? No, but he made contact with the ball, so not a high tackle after all. It remains just a penalty.
Canna sticks the ball into Irish territory.
18 min: Ireland 10 Italy 3
Italy pinch the lineout, only to spill it into Irish hands. Canna then intercepts a bouncing pass, allowing Italy to clear long.
Stockdale runs it back, chipping and chasing, but Violi beats him to the ball. Italy clear once more, this time Conway runs it back. Ringrose then gets Ireland over the gainline before Sexton sends a high ball up for Hayward to claim.
16 min: Ireland 10 Italy 3
Ryan takes the kick-off, allowing Sexton to clear to touch from the next phase. Murray is back on the pitch following his yellow card.
Porter wins a turnover at the ruck following the Italy lineout. Poor clear out technique. Sexton pumps the ball back into the Italian 22.
Penalty Ireland (Sexton) Ireland 10 Italy 3
Sexton opts to go for goal, taking an easy three points.
13 min: Ireland 7 Italy 3
Herring throws the ball over the top straight to Aki who crashes it up. Ringrose, covering for Murray at scrum-half, knocks the ball on.
Ireland win a penalty at the scrum, tighthead Zilocchi pinged for binding on the arm.
12 min: Ireland 7 Italy 3
Italy work their way up the field nicely, a cross-field kick finding some space for Steyn. Two phases later, Italy are penalised for holding on. Penalty to Ireland on half-way. Sexton sticks the ball into the Italian 22.
TRY! (Stander) Ireland 7 Italy 3
Stander picks the ball up and drives over the line from close range, the extras are duly added.
8 min: Ireland 0 Italy 3
Ireland form a maul but are held up, forcing them to play out the back. Ringrose, deputising at nine, almost breaks through. Ireland pick and go, edging closer to the line.
7 min: Ireland 0 Italy 3
Ireland hold up Canna from the restart, giving them a scrum in an excellent attacking position. Stander passes to Ringrose who finds Aki. Ireland work around the corner through the forwards, earning a penalty advantage. Sexton attempts a cross-field kick, nothing comes off it, back for the penalty.
Ireland stick it in the corner. Brave with a man in the sin bin.
Penalty Italy (Garbisi) Ireland 0 Italy 3
The young fly-half slots an easy three points from in front of the posts.
4 min: Ireland 0 Italy 0
Italy secure their lineout in Irish territory, using Canna as a crash ball option. Negri then bursts through a gap, passing to Violi who is dragged down just yards short of the line. Murray kills the ball. He is yellow carded!
What a start for Italy!
2 min: Ireland 0 Italy 0
Italy take the kick-off cleanly. They play a couple of phases before clearing their lines. The ball was taken into touch by Stockdale, returning possession to Italy. Garbisi sends another kick long, Conway electing to kick it into touch from within his 22.
Here we go! The Six Nations is back!
Ireland get us underway.
Here come the national anthems
It is very odd without the crowd joining in. The Italian team providing a fairly tuneful effort, in fairness.
How will Jacob Stockdale go at full-back today?
He starts at 15 today, with Jordan Larmour unavailable. Stockdale has played there on and off for Ulster, with mixed results. He has a powerful left boot and, of course, is comfortable with ball in hand.
A big chance for him today with Ireland's abundance of back three options.
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It has been a while, so here is a reminder of the 2020 Six Nations standings
A new-look pre-match procedure
— Guinness Six Nations (@SixNationsRugby) October 24, 2020
Italy have three debutants in their 23-man squad
Most notably, Paolo Garbisi at fly-half. The 20-year-old Garbisi only made his Pro14 debut for Benetton this season. Garbisi hails from Venice and has played for Italy throughout the age groups, representing the U20s just last year.
Ready for debuts from the bench are Benetton hooker Gianmarco Lucchesi and Calvisano utility back Federico Mori.
Ireland head coach Andy Farrell ahead of kick-off:
"We are ready. We have been itching for a while to get back. We are privileged to be here today.
"We have to generate our own atmosphere and hopefully the performance does that for us."
Some pre-match snaps from the empty Aviva Stadium
— Irish Rugby (@IrishRugby) October 24, 2020
Italy are building a terrific back-row unit
Despite losing Sergio Parisse, who is still awaiting his international farewell, the Italian back-row looks formidable.
Jake Polledri is one of the Premierships's best ball carriers, bouncing off defenders week after week. Braam Steyn, playing at openside, will lead the defensive effort, as well as being a handy carrier. Sebastian Negri is another impressive player. He carries hard, runs intelligent lines and will make himself a nuisance at the breakdown too.
Plenty for the Irish back-row to deal with, then...
Ireland have two debutants starting this afternoon
Hugo Keenan starts on the wing. He is electric and formidable with ball in hand, having spent time with the Irish Sevens programme. The other debutant is flanker Will Connors, who has proven himself to be one of the best tacklers in the Pro14. A selection on form, keeping a number of familiar faces out of the XV in a very competitive area for Ireland.
— OptaJonny (@OptaJonny) October 22, 2020
It feels very good, and a little odd, to have the Six Nations back
The seven-month absence and the lack of fans in attendance does give this match a rather odd feel.
Murrayfield hosted Scotland's win over Georgia last night and the lack of atmosphere only comes through stronger in the larger venues.
Italy will be hoping the lack of home crowd will enhance their chances of causing an upset this afternoon.
A reminder of the line-ups in full:
Ireland: Jacob Stockdale, Andrew Conway, Garry Ringrose, Bundee Aki, Hugo Keenan, Jonathan Sexton (captain), Conor Murray; CJ Stander, Will Connors, Caelan Doris, James Ryan, Tadhg Beirne, Andrew Porter, Rob Herring, Cian Healy.
Reserves: Dave Heffernan, Ed Byrne, Finlay Bealham, Ultan Dillane, Peter O'Mahony, Jamison Gibson-Park, Ross Byrne, Robbie Henshaw.
Italy: Jayden Hayward, Edoardo Padovani, Luca Morisi, Carlo Canna, Mattia Bellini, Paolo Garbisi, Marcello Violi; Jake Polledri, Braam Steyn, Sebastian Negri, Niccolo Cannone, Marco Lazzaroni, Giosue Zilocchi, Luca Bigi (captain), Danilo Fischetti.
Reserves: Gianmarco Lucchesi, Simone Ferrari, Pietro Ceccarelli, David Sisi, Johan Meyer, Maxime Mbanda, Callum Braley, Federico Mori.
Good afternoon, here is a preview of today's clash
Ireland and Italy will reboot Six Nations rugby on Saturday after a seven-month suspension.
Ireland has won 19 of 20 Six Nations matches against Italy, giving coach Andy Farrell the confidence to experiment.
In the absence of the injured Jordan Larmour and Will Addison, Jacob Stockdale will make his first start at fullback, where he excelled for Ireland Under-20s in their run to the world junior final in 2016. Hugo Keenan, also in that under-20 side, will debut on the left wing in a pacy back three.
The uncapped Will Connors has received the No. 7 jersey ahead of Rugby World Cup players Peter O'Mahony, Josh van der Flier and Jack Conan. While mainstay lock Iain Henderson is suspended, Tadhg Beirne is partnering with James Ryan .
Two more newcomers are in the reserves: Leinster prop Ed Byrne and New Zealand-born scrum-half Jamison Gibson-Park.
Italy is rolling out three uncapped players of its own, notably Paolo Garbisi at fly-half. The 20-year-old Garbisi is fresh from his Pro14 debut for Benetton this season, and will call the shots with scrum-half Marcello Violi, making his first appearance in more than two years.
Winger Edoardo Padovani appears for the first time since the Rugby World Cup, and Jake Polledri makes a first start at No. 8.
Ready for debuts from the reserves are Benetton hooker Gianmarco Lucchesi and Calvisano utility back Federico Mori.
Italy hasn't beaten anyone in the competition in more than five years. But it has chances to spoil the title ambitions of Ireland this week and England next week, and give its country a morale boost.
"This country has been through a lot so we want to go to Ireland, give a good account of ourselves and make people proud because we are not only representing our families and our friends, but we are representing the whole of Italy," flanker Sebastian Negri said in his column in Talking Rugby Union. "There is a lot of excitement."