Fun in the sun but Scotland loss still rattling Joe Schmidt
Nine-try win in Rome unable to eradicate Murrayfield aftertaste
Published 13/02/2017 | 02:30
For all the fun Ireland had in the Roman sun, the defeat to Scotland lingered in Irish minds. This should have been step two on a journey towards a Grand Slam and that it's not devalued the record points total and everything that came with it.
It was instructive that Joe Schmidt kept Conor Murray on for so long despite the obvious need for Kieran Marmion to gain experience, while Ian Keatley's late introduction came on the wing. The coach wanted to buttress his side's points total for the endgame in just over a month's time.
Six points from two games and a points differential of +48 leaves Ireland looking in a reasonably healthy position despite their loss, but watching England grind their way past Wales in what was a proper Test match in Cardiff only served as a reminder that what we saw in Rome was not a contest.
Eddie Jones has already pledged that his side will pulverise the Italians in London in two weeks' time and with Scotland also due in Twickenham in Round Four, the reality for Ireland is that they need two wins and at least one try-scoring bonus to keep pace ahead of their final-day battle with the champions in Dublin.
"As I said before the Championship started, I think it's going to be a super Championship," Schmidt said.
"There's going to be some battles that come down to the wire and there's going to be a number of coaches' fingernails missing at the end of this Six Nations because it's just going to be really tight and combative. One team could get away but if they do I think it will be by small margins that they accumulate that break from the pack."
The visit of France in two weeks' time will give us a better barometer of where this team stands.
Certainly, they responded to their disappointing display in Edinburgh with a fast start and from the moment Simon Zebo dominated the first aerial collision to claim Murray's box-kick, the tone was set.
Against Scotland, they arrived late to the ground and never caught up on themselves. Afterwards their coach questioned their mental fragility, but despite losing their captain Rory Best to a stomach bug on the morning of the game, the players tore into their task and got the therapeutic result they needed.
A similarly sluggish start in any of the remaining games is likely to leave Schmidt's side without a hope of winning a third title in four campaigns and the coach is hopeful continue to meet the standard they set from the off.
"It's the standard the players want, to be honest," Schmidt said of the start.
"You have a look at our start against Australia, our start against the All Blacks in Chicago, even our start, as much as the All Blacks scored early in the Aviva, I thought in the next 10 minutes we really put them under pressure and were a little bit unlucky from a scrum not to get some sort of result.
"So I think we crossed the line twice in the next 10 minutes after they scored a try, so as far as starts are concerned, it's unusual for us.
"We touched upon a few things during the week to make sure guys were ready and they hit the ground running.
"But the Championship is a little bit different. There is a little bit of, I suppose, pressure that you don't quite get in the November Series. You want to win every Test match, you want to perform well, the crowds are there and there's a great atmosphere.
"But the accumulation of knowing that there's points up for grabs and this is the championship that we play in, it can just cause guys to get a little bit spooked and we have a number of guys playing in their first or second championship so that they don't quite have that experience.
"So hopefully after today and last week they'll build a bit of confidence and appreciate that they can live up to these big matches."
For all that Schmidt cut a far more relaxed figure than he had in the build-up to the game when he refused to let go of the impact the short delay had had on his players in Edinburgh, the sight of his players running in nine tries didn't wash away the bitter taste of last week's under-performance and the opportunity that was lost.
"Aw, it (the loss) is always going to rattle around, you know? Just because there are things that are always a concern that they might pop up again," he said.
"I don't think any progress is linear, I think there are different things . . . it's a bit like tuning a car, you might tinker with this part of it and it's this part over here that doesn't quite function as a result. And you're always trying to make sure as much of it is running as smoothly as possible.
"There's a few things that will still be in the back of our mind that we know that we need to be good at, that we haven't quite been yet. But we know there are things that we feel that we demonstrated that were pretty competent when our mindset is right and the accuracy is right.
"But it's very hard to compare two games. The time we had on the ball today as opposed to last week, the ruck and how slow the ball was, how many bodies we had to clear out of the way last week as opposed to today. You know, very different circumstances."
The paucity of the opposition helped, but Ireland took to their task in far better fashion than they had a week previously and unleashed the potential of their ground-and-pound back-row on the hapless Italians.
In total, CJ Stander, Seán O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip carried the ball 53 times between them for a total of 143 metres. Peter O'Mahony is fit again and his inclusion would give the back-row a more balanced look, but it is impossible to ignore those numbers.
Stander is hardly going to be dropped after his hat-trick, while O'Brien is the best player in the squad and Heaslip was outstanding as skipper. Josh van der Flier adds instant impact from the bench too, so the Munster captain, who has strong credentials of his own, has a tough job on his hands.
France will offer a different conundrum and will certainly ask far more questions of the Irish defence.
If Andy Farrell made improvements to the rearguard, we were never going to find out in Rome because the Azzurri were so bad with ball in hand. The line-speed was better, but Guy Noves' army of enormous ball-carriers and pair of Fijian wingers will offer a different challenge.
Still, Ireland remain in the hunt ahead of their return to the Aviva Stadium in 11 days' time. There are no more soft touches - it's all Championship rugby from here on in.