Sunday 4 December 2016

Italy offer Schmidt perfect chance to trial more expansive game

Published 06/03/2016 | 02:30

'This game will be a leg-up for Joe Schmidt, whose team will play a lot more rugby than they did in the Olympic Stadium, when they managed to make Italy look slick' Photo: Sportsfile
'This game will be a leg-up for Joe Schmidt, whose team will play a lot more rugby than they did in the Olympic Stadium, when they managed to make Italy look slick' Photo: Sportsfile

Back in the day, when rugby was still an amateur game and Ireland were not very good at it, the Scots used to look at us in the way a birthday boy might welcome the postman. Whatever other Championship issues they would be having with England, Wales and France, once the green jerseys came around the corner they would cheer up immediately: a win, at last!

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The run between 1989-99 - 12 games in which Ireland lost 11 and drew one - was the worst since the early days of the fixture in the 1890s. Unlike our relationship with France in Parc des Princes, where we never won, the Scots were on roughly the same plane as us, with the game occupying the same social space. Moreover, both rugby unions were joined at the hip in their obsession with amateurism over progress. So to go a dozen games without a win against them took on eerie overtones.

Since then the Scots have slumped into their own black hole, and while we tend not to rate them as a massive threat, it is the Italians who for us occupy the space as a banker win. And Ireland need to lodge exactly that.

No one could claim to be gobsmacked by the state of the Six Nations table going into the last two rounds. Even in this parish our prediction of Wales, England, France, Ireland, Scotland and Italy looks like being in the right neck of the woods when it all comes to a close on Saturday week.

So if your expectations of Ireland were low enough when it came to retaining the title then you'll have been looking at a few other areas to see if we're going backwards, forwards or standing still.

For those of us who want Ireland to play with more ball in hand - or rather to be less risk averse - then Twickenham was a marker of sorts. The willingness to play more rugby didn't quite pan out on the scoreboard, but a slightly different twist could have had a dramatic effect. If it sounds simplistic that decisions shape momentum, then fair enough. They do.

For example, on 17 minutes referee Romain Poite decided that Robbie Henshaw had obstructed Owen Farrell from getting to Johnny Sexton, who had slipped out the back and disappeared into open country. Had the Ireland out-half not been called back, the scoreline might readily have read 10-3 instead of 3-3. The reality was that Farrell made a bad defensive read, and Poite compounded it. His pointing finger and 'ho ho you're not fooling me' look came across more like him trying to cover a mistake than endorse his own decision.

These little or large swings happen in every game, on the back of bad decisions made by players or referees, and are a critical element in the overall outcome. Another example is the quality of Ireland's calling and general movement at the lineout. Paul O'Connell already is being missed for lots of reasons, and in the lineout especially. This phase has been steadily getting worse over the first three rounds, and seven wins from 11 throws in Twickenham is a bad stat at any level of rugby. When Ireland and Italy met in London a few months ago, Jacques Brunel's team might have won had they not caved in out of touch, where they lost five of 17 throws - a stat which in itself indicates how much Ireland were kicking the ball then.

Gone now from the pack that day are O'Connell, Iain Henderson, Peter O'Mahony and Sean O'Brien. This hardly elevates Italy to favourites status but it in their absence it makes Simon Easterby's job harder. John Plumtree may have left the forwards job last year feeling he could have achieved more but at least the maul, when he departed, was in good working order. That too is more of a verbal threat than a weapon at the minute.

With a record of zero wins in Dublin since the mid-90s the Italians won't be travelling this week with any confidence. And they don't have in their midst a Maro Itoje, whose Championship debut for England last weekend saw him plunder Ireland out of touch. Instead this game will be a leg-up for Joe Schmidt, whose team will play a lot more rugby than they did in the Olympic Stadium, when they managed to make Italy look slick.

With the title gone, and the chances of losing minimal, this will be a good opportunity to go further down the road of more adventurous rugby. It's a nonsense to suggest rugby can't be played like that at Test level. It can't be done successfully if your set-piece is crumbling so there are boxes to be ticked that went blank in Twickenham. If that happens again on Saturday then it will be a much tighter affair than planned. And what's needed is some daylight before the Scots rock up.

Sunday Indo Sport

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