Wednesday 26 April 2017

Joe Schmidt challenges Ireland to make a strong start against Italy

Ireland's Johnny Sexton
Ireland's Johnny Sexton

Joe Schmidt has challenged Ireland to emerge from any professional-era comfort blanket to set their RBS 6 Nations campaign back on track in Italy this weekend.

Head coach Schmidt has laid down the gauntlet to his Ireland squad to react far quicker to unexpected setbacks in Rome on Saturday than in last weekend's 27-22 loss in Scotland.

Ireland were 15 minutes late arriving at Murrayfield on Saturday, with Schmidt later conceding a rushed warm-up contributed to his side's sluggish start.

A lacklustre Ireland leaked three tries in the opening half-hour in Edinburgh, with Schmidt now demanding his players quickly devise far more effective coping strategies.

"I have challenged them for a better start in Italy," said Schmidt.

"It's incredibly disappointing the way we started last weekend.

"I don't think it was apathy, there was a bit of anxiety at not having had the full period to warm-up.

"Players get anxious, they get very routine-based and I do think it's a challenge for a professional player that they can be adaptable in different circumstances, so they can still start well and cope.

"They scored three tries in those first 25 minutes, then didn't score another try after that.

"And I think that reflects what the team were capable of, but unfortunately then you're chasing things.

"So we've certainly given them that challenge this week, and hopefully we see a better start."

Schmidt has refused to gamble Johnny Sexton's fitness on Saturday's tournament-defining encounter with Italy in Rome.

Lose at the Stadio Olimpico and Ireland would concede any lingering title chances, but Schmidt has refused any temptation to field his linchpin fly-half.

Sexton missed the defeat in Scotland with calf trouble and was only ever handed an "outside chance" of facing Italy, so head coach Schmidt has again turned to Paddy Jackson to run his backline.

Sexton has not played since Leinster's 24-24 draw at Castres on January 20, but Ireland still expect the 31-year-old to be ready to face France in Dublin on February 25.

Donnacha Ryan starts at lock with Ultan Dillane on the bench, and Iain Henderson suffering a minor hamstring strain.

Cian Healy starts at loosehead prop with Jack McGrath dropping to the bench and wing Craig Gilroy also among the replacements.

Ireland's late arrival at Murrayfield was put down to the police diverting from the agreed route while escorting the team bus to the ground.

Schmidt said he will not be triple-checking plans with the Italians this weekend however, instead calling on his players to learn from last week's chastening experience.

Asked if he will be in close contact with Italian police this week, Schmidt said: "No, I think that was just a one-off anomaly.

"We're a lot more focused on what we can do performance-wise but I think it's good to have to cope with some of those distractions.

"Sometimes in other tournaments you're going to have disruptions and you're going to have to be able to cope with that and still perform.

"And I don't feel that we're playing catch-up entirely.

"As long as we can keep getting better we can potentially stay in control of our own destiny."

Scrum-half Conor Murray admitted Ireland had been "shocked" by Scotland's aggressive start - a feeling he intends not to suffer again.

Asked if the players now feel they owe the coaches, Murray said: "If you want to look at it that way. We just look at ourselves.

"Personally and collectively as a group of players we were just disappointed in the way we performed because we trained a lot better, and we hope we prepared a lot better and it just didn't happen.

"It's frustrating; it would be easy to feel sorry for ourselves and be quite angry with each other.

"There's a bit of that but we shook ourselves down early in the week and we've got to respond really positively.

"We won't make any excuses, we started the game poorly and that's a reflection on us as players. We all had enough time to warm up and enough time to get ready.

"Scotland flew out of the blocks, not that it surprised us, but they shocked us a little bit; we should have been ready for that but we weren't."

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