Six Nations Italy rout leaves Ireland boss Joe Schmidt short of answers
Ireland 58-15 Italy
After Ireland established their new record for tries scored in a Six Nations game against Italy at the Aviva on Saturday, head coach Joe Schmidt admitted it would be hard to judge just how much his side had improved from their three winless games at the start of the championship.
The hosts, who had managed just 10 scores during the 2015 and '16 championships combined before Saturday, ran in nine against putrid opposition who, after finishing in the basement just once since 2011, seem destined once again for the wooden spoon this year.
"I think it's a balance," Schmidt acknowledged when asked how much the visitors contributed to their own downfall. "I'll go back and I'll have a really close look and I'll see how and why and when we constructed the scores we did.
"We'll still be just as stringent in how we benchmark what we have done but I do think we were afforded a little bit more time and space and that allowed us freedom.
"I know people question decisions I might make or the way we might play but I guarantee I question it more.
"I am always trying to think how we can best utilise the resources we have, how we can best put pressure on the opponents we have. Also how we keep things fresh, to challenge players."
It will have been a win best received in the west of Ireland - a proud day for Connacht with five of their number finishing the game - but there was plenty to cheer for the northern province too.
Andrew Trimble and Jared Payne both scored tries - the former's 17th for Ireland, moving him into a tie with Brendan Mullin for seventh on the all-time list - and were involved in others throughout while Rory Best secured his first victory since being made permanent captain.
Trimble opened the scoring when Payne made the most of a gift from Italian wing Leonardo Sarto while, after Jack McGrath and CJ Stander had crossed the whitewash, both Ulstermen played their part in Jamie Heaslip's length-of-the-field effort to round out the first-half - regardless of opposition, surely the best score of Schmidt's tenure.
Whether Payne is overly concerned by the continued debate as to where his obvious talents would best serve the team is unclear, but the naturalised Kiwi will have enjoyed his third international try which arrived just after the turn as part of a strong showing at outside centre.
Heaslip added his second and Ireland's sixth soon after and Schmidt could afford to give Jonathan Sexton and Best a rest for the final half hour, the skipper's understudy, Sean Cronin, another who found his way onto the scoresheet.
While the final quarter hardly resembled a Test match at all, the perfectionists in the camp surely bristled at the conceding of tries to David Odiete and Sarto but substitute Ultan Dillane, even on a day when starting locks Donnacha Ryan and Devin Toner were two of the best players on show, again showed glimpses of his immense promise and two of the coach's seemingly favourite sons, Ian Madigan and Fergus McFadden, provided scores off the bench.
Injuries to key men before kick-off hardly helped the Italians, and they lost more throughout, but this was another performance that will raise questions about their continued presence in the championship.
On the same day the Azzurri were being dismantled, Georgia beat Russia in the Nations Cup - a competition where they have not suffered a reverse since 2010 - to set Los Lelos up for yet another title in Europe's second tier off the back of a World Cup where they won two games.
Whether they merit a crack at the big time is becoming an increasingly pertinent issue.
The official charged with offering English versions of Italian captain Sergio Parisse's post-match comments may have provided answers that were conspicuously shorter than the original but one thing that could not be lost in translation was the look on the face of the one world class talent at Jacques Brunel's disposal.
After a Test career spent trying to lift team-mates up to his level, the Stade Francais man wore a resigned expression.
"It is a question I think (that is asked) when you lose matches like that," he admitted. "People will say if Italy deserve to play this tournament or not. But when you see what we have done in the past, even against Ireland a couple of years ago (the 2013 win in Rome), I think Italy really deserve to."
The paucity of opposition offered by the Italians will mean that, while Ireland scored plenty, they have learned considerably less but the outing will have provided a much needed boost.
Repeat the trick against a much stronger Scotland on Saturday and the unsuccessful title defence will have ended on a high note.
With the likes of Iain Henderson, Tommy Bowe, Sean O'Brien and Peter O'Mahony to return for the three-game tour to South Africa this summer, Schmidt's men could jet off in a far better place.
Ireland: S Zebo; A Trimble, J Payne, R Henshaw, K Earls; J Sexton, C Murray; J McGrath, R Best (capt), M Ross; D Ryan, D Toner; CJ Stander, J van der Flier, J Heaslip
Replacements: S Cronin (for Best, 50), F Bealham (for McGrath, 66), N White (for Ross, 55), U Dillane (for Toner, 55), R Ruddock (for Stander, 62), K Marmion (for Murray, 60), I Madigan (for Sexton, 50), F McFadden (for Payne, 72)
Italy: D Odiete; L Sarto, M Campagnaro, G Garcia, M Bellini; E Padovani, G Palazzani; A Lovotti, D Giazzon, D Chistolini; G Biagi, M Fuser; F Minto, A Zanni, S Parisse
Replacements: O Fabiani (for Giazzon,55), M Zanusso (for Lovotti, 72), P Ceccarelli (for Chistolini, 55), Q Geldenhuys (for Fuser, 27), B Steyn (for Biagi, 36), A Lucchese (for Palazzani, 62), K Haimona (for Garcia, 55), L McLean (for Padovani, 60)
Man of the match: Donnacha Ryan
Match rating: 7/10
Referee: Angus Gardner