THE last time Ireland were in Soldier Field the All Blacks were beaten and a 111-year long streak snapped loud enough that the rugby world could hear it.
Much of what Ireland have become in the two years since — Grand Slam champions, victorious tourists in Australia, a rise to second in the world rankings for the first time - have roots in that sunny day in Chicago in 2016.
The opposition this time around weren’t the All Blacks (not even close, actually) but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t anything worth seeing here this time around, far from it. In the aftermath of beating the All Blacks and ascending to second in the world in ranking as well as in reality, this game provided Ireland’s “second layer” — with a sprinkling of the first layer talent - an opportunity to show why we’re in that position.
It’s not enough to have a first XV that can crack skulls, kick ass and take names — as Ireland certainly do these days — you have to have that second layer that can get the job done with equal efficiency. Ireland certainly managed that here.
The final score was 54-7 but that’s not really the story. Ireland were always likely to win this one — and with a bit to spare — so it came down to who amongst the 23 might put their hands up for further consideration over the next few weeks. A few did themselves no favours but no massive injury either. A few grabbed a hold of the magical brass ring that turns provincial standouts into test match animals.
But first, let’s get the obvious out of the way. Italy just weren’t very good here. That shouldn’t be too much of a shock given their selection — made a week ago — but their performance in this game was such that the biggest challenge for Ireland came down to how much they could impress Joe Schmidt individually.
That last line sounds disrespectful to Italy but it really isn’t meant to. There isn’t any escape from the fact, however, that this was far from a first choice Italian selection. This was an Italy minus a lot of their top performers through a mixture of injury, rotation and out of window club commitments.
So there was no Ghiraldini, no Parisse, no Polledri. Injury robbed Italy of the services of the likes of Minozzi, Violi, Licato, Padovani, Sarto, Mbanda and others. As much as Schmidt was examining the Irish second layer, the same was true of O’Shea.
There was some talent in this Italian selection, of course. Campagnaro might have fallen off the radar at Exeter but he was quality here and more than deserved Italy’s only try. Sperandio at fullback and the elusive, hard running Renato Giammarioli at #8 were also impressive.
But the main story has to be about Ireland’s stand out individuals. Tadhg Beirne scored two tries, stole a lineout and generally looked like a guy who should have been at home with the rockstars waiting for the Pumas. The same could be said — minus the two tries and the stolen lineout — of Garry Ringrose who played like the Rolls Royce player he is and then some.
The star of the show though was Jordan Larmour who had the kind of test match start that you’d dream of having as a young fella. He beat players for fun - 12, in fact - made 249 metres with ball in hand, created a try, scored three and looked like an 18-year-old playing mini rugby at times.
He was electric, unstoppable and borderline unplayable. His link-up play with Ringrose was a joy to watch and was a massive part of an impressive second half, even with Italy blowing black smoke and dropping screws from 45 minutes on.
The pack as a whole were great with Van Der Flier, Roux and Conan standing out for me outside the outstanding Beirne.
The bench had a good impact, too. They transitioned well against the Italian replacements but Cronin, Bealham and Kilcoyne can be very happy with their day’s work.
On the other side of it, Carbery had a mixed game, as did McGrath. Both had good moments but didn’t really control the opening 40 as they might have liked. Patience seemed to be the biggest issue for both men - too much for McGrath at the base of the ruck and too little for Carbery who was a little bit loose with his passing at times. Cooney and Byrne looked great when they came on but the arse had fallen out of Italy long before that point.
What did Ireland learn here?
That they’ve got an effective second layer that can easily dispose of Italy’s second layer. We already knew that.
So what else?
We learned that Beirne, Van Der Flier, Ringrose and Jordan Larmour are ready to roll as the bigger fish come around the river bend this November.