Friday 22 September 2017

Ruaidhri O'Connor: Bonus-point victory must be minimum aim

Schmidt's side's backs are to the wall after Murrayfield setback and they need a four-try victory in Rome today

Simon Zebo warms up during the Irish Captain’s Run at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome. Photo: Sportsfile
Simon Zebo warms up during the Irish Captain’s Run at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome. Photo: Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

After the false start, Ireland go in search of a reaction in Rome. The Grand Slam is gone and their mission now is to ensure they get to the final day with a shot at the title and their World Cup seeding still in good shape.

They are playing catch-up on their rivals after the surprise defeat in Murrayfield and today is all about their response in adversity.

This is their banker. Italy come into today's game on the back of a short turnaround after a demoralising loss to Wales.

They are the softest touch in this Championship and with the weather forecast positive - it was a balmy 16 degrees for the Captain's Run yesterday - there is scope for them to rack up a score.

If they return home with anything less than five points it will have been a failed mission.

That their Captain's Run went ahead without the captain is a cause for concern as Schmidt continues to bemoan the impact a late bus had on their performance last weekend.

Click here to view full-size graphic
Click here to view full-size graphic

If a 15-minute delay made the players "anxious" enough to perform so badly in Edinburgh, how destabilising would it be if Rory Best didn't recover in time to lead his side.

Uncapped Munster man Niall Scannell is on stand-by, while once-capped Leinster hooker James Tracy flew in last night as cover and a decision on Best's dicky tummy will be taken this morning.

Schmidt hasn't directly criticised his players for their performance in losing in Scotland, but aside from the logistical challenges they encountered last weekend, it is clear that he feels they failed to carry out his instructions to the required level at Murrayfield and paid the price.

Undermined

The 27-22 defeat is a setback that has undermined the feel-good factor generated by the stellar results Ireland earned in November.

The value of beating New Zealand should endure beyond the end of this Six Nations, but perhaps it is pointed to remember that the last northern hemisphere team to win against the All Blacks was Stuart Lancaster's England and it didn't stand to them at the next World Cup.

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt. Photo: Sportsfile
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt. Photo: Sportsfile

Schmidt is hoping his team have learned their lesson.

"If we're on the back foot I think we're going to cope better than we did last week as a collective and find the solutions, because some of the scores that we allowed Scotland to get we're really disappointed with," he said.

"We showed some good stuff as well. We scored three tries each and I think they are a good side and we had to work hard to score those tries because it was pretty difficult on the back of when we did break them we did have to fight to get the ball back because they made it difficult and we missed a few platforms we would normally get that would give us access to the game.

"We didn't get those. If we miss a few platforms how can we still get into the game and be proactive and positive because those things are going to happen sometimes.

"I'd love to win the Six Nations and I know the players would and maybe that is the wake-up call."

Scotland are a better team than today's opponents Italy whose trajectory has been downward since they won this fixture in 2013.

Conor O'Shea, Mike Catt and Brendan Venter bring with them plenty of expertise, but last week's defeat to Wales showed just how far the Azzurri have to travel before they can compete at this level.

With all of the other five nations making progress, the Italians are playing catch-up on a moving train and it will be a massive test of the former Ireland full-back's powers to redress the balance.

Speaking before the tournament, the Terenure man acknowledged that the prospect of facing Ireland was one that excited him and he will savour the anthems and the occasion before settling down to work.

Ireland's job is to ensure he doesn't enjoy the rest of the day.

Italy are coming off a six-day turnaround after a bruising battle with Wales last Sunday. They were in that game for an hour before it got away from them and the effort took its toll.

Captain Sergio Parisse has been struggling with a neck injury and O'Shea has made four changes to his team but depth is not one of the strong points of Italian rugby.

Schmidt has retained his hard-running back-row in an effort to keep the tempo high and batter the home team's defensive line.

Italy will be physical, but Ireland are not a team of shrinking violets and they will relish the close-quarter exchanges.

If they can get go-forward ball, then they will fancy their chances of running in the four or more tries that would leave them on six points after two games.

That would appear to be a pre-requisite for a title challenge given England will welcome the Italians to Twickenham and will expect the maximum return.

Schmidt has returned to the topic of the delayed bus time and time again, but yesterday forwards coach Simon Easterby attempted to draw a line under the issue as he said the worry over Best would not discommode the players.

"I think too much was made of that last week," he said of a subject brought up by Schmidt repeatedly after the match and again at Thursday's team announcement.

"The players will not look for excuses in terms of the way that they prepare and I certainly don't think that this will have an effect on them.

"There's a lot of preparation that has been done up until now and today is about dotting the i's and crossing the t's; everything is in place and it's just about rehearsing a few things.

"And at some point in the game if your captain has to go off, you still have to keep moving forward and make sure that whatever your plan is that you don't lose track of that.

"So whether the captain starts or at this late stage if Rory wasn't to make the team, then at least we think we can feel pretty confident that the lads will take on board whatever is in place in the week and deliver the game-plan."

The absence of Best from the final training session of the week is hardly ideal given the need to fix Ireland's lineout.

Donnacha Ryan's return will help and Easterby says he's been looking at small tweaks to the set-piece to avoid making the same mistakes again.

"Little things, I think it's been well documented that it didn't go as well as would have liked and it's a really important source of possession, it's an important part of the game, not just to get yourself into the game but also to take away the opposition's threats there," the forwards coach said.

"We clearly didn't do that on a number of occasions and that's something that as a coach I'm certainly disappointed with, but the players were also disappointed with a few things that we just didn't get quite right.

"But there's not a huge amount wrong, it's just fixing a few things and making sure that we protect the right options at the right time and don't give them any access.

"And Italy in the way they have picked in terms of (Dries) van Schalkwyk coming back in, he poses a little bit more of a threat to join the two in the second-row, probably going to be a threat at lineout time, all of those things will add a bit of pressure to the line-up.

"We feel confident with the work we have done this week that we can eradicate the inroads there from last week."

Given Ireland rely on their lineout for most of their tries, it is imperative that they find a solution.

If they can tighten it up and start the game with the same intensity they showed for 20 minutes after half-time last weekend then they have all the weapons needed to overwhelm the Italians.

Conor Murray will hope to be served better ball by his switched-on pack, which should allow Paddy Jackson the extra time he needs to get the backline moving.

Up front, both teams dominated their opening games at scrum-time and Ireland will bank on Cian Healy adding even more oomph to their ball-carrying options.

However, if their attitude is off again and they give O'Shea's men a sniff, then they will be in for a long day.

With little or no impact on the bench, it's imperative that the starting team hits the ground running this week.

With the sun on their backs, they have no excuse but to go out and put a score on the Italians.

Four tries is the minimum expected.

Irish Independent

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