Thursday 21 September 2017

Joe Schmidt enjoying popularity politicians can only dream of

Defending champions will get stronger as Six Nations goes on, so result is all that matters against dangerous Italy side with a point to prove

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Joe Schmidt wakes in the Eternal City this morning knowing nothing lasts forever.

As he peers through the window of the team bus winding its way towards the Stadio Olimpico, artefacts and buildings will remind him of a once-great empire, seemingly infallible leaders, now consigned to the past.

Nobody proves you're only as good as your last battle like the Romans.

The Ireland coach is at the height of his powers, enjoying the kind of popularity politicians could only dream of; he has fans, pundits and, crucially, his own charges believing in everything he does.

Since he took over, Schmidt has had the golden touch, and still he frets and speaks of trepidation when he looks to the future. He has plenty of reasons to be nervous this afternoon.

His Ireland team finished last season as European champions and followed it up with a November clean sweep that left them the top-ranked country from the continent at No 3 in the world.

Connor Murray's presence should be of reassurance to the 'youngsters' (Sportsfile)
Connor Murray's presence should be of reassurance to the 'youngsters' (Sportsfile)
Ireland's Gordon D'Arcy, Conor Murray, centre, and Cian Healy in action during squad training. Carton House, Maynooth, Co. Kildare (Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE)

As a result, fans, pundits and bookies alike have installed Ireland as favourites to retain their crown for the first time since 1949.

Whatever about the crown being heavy, the weight of expectation is another burden altogether.

Things look set up for Ireland in 2015. An odd year means home games against France and England, an opening game against Italy in Rome means they can slip into the tournament relatively unnoticed and the injury list that has been lengthy throughout Schmidt's time in charge is getting strangely short.

Strongest

Conceivably, the squad he will have to choose from for the visit of France to Dublin next week will be the strongest hand he has had to play since coming into the job.

All that he and his relatively inexperienced side need to do today is win and make the plane.

Standing in their way is an Italian team fresh from an annus horribilis that lies in stark contrast to Ireland's.

Today's hosts lost 10 of their 11 games in 2014 and were awarded the wooden spoon in last year's Six Nations. They conceded 27 points a game and found scores hard to come by, averaging 13 per match in a difficult year.

Read more: Tony Ward: It's a long time since Irish rugby has had so many natural leaders

Since their win over Ireland at this venue in 2013, they have only beaten Samoa and Fiji, and yet there is a real sense they will be highly dangerous today.

One reason for that feeling is the emergence of New Zealander Kelly Haimona into the No 10 shirt.

At 6ft 1ins and 17 stone, the Maori is a big man who likes to play and has pace in abundance out wide, where Michele Campagnaro, Luke McLean, Leonardo Sarto and Andrea Masi pose a threat.

Up front, they are a familiar mix of front-row brawn and back-row brains, but the reality is the majority of these players play for two of Europe's worst professional teams in Zebre and Treviso, who don't win games very often.

On home soil, on opening weekend and with Sergio Parisse back to lead them, they will give everything to the cause and make life difficult for Ireland.

At full strength, Schmidt's men should be comfortably able to deal with what comes their way but the absence of a number of central, experienced figures who are experts in executing the coach's game-plan undermines confidence.

The tight five should be well able to handle themselves despite the presence of world-class operators like Martin Castrogiovanni, which should ensure good, quick ball for the backs; the question marks begin in the back-row.

Sean O'Brien's fitness is one concern after the Tullow Tank came through just 50 minutes for the Wolfhounds since returning from serious shoulder surgery, while Jordi Murphy hasn't played at No 8 for some time.

Conor Murray's presence should be of reassurance to the youngster making his first Six Nations start - as well as to Ian Keatley, who is set for his Championship debut.

All eyes will be on the Dubliner, who will need to exert control from the off while handling the defensive duties that are set to come down his channel.

"It's a given these days that most teams, if they can get their set-piece in a really strong place, will hammer the No 10 channel and whether it was (Johnny) Sexton, Ian Madigan or Keatley I expect they would have gone there," said defence coach Les Kiss.

"We have certainly done some work on it as we always would.

"One of the things they have with Haimona is that he doesn't mind playing direct as well, he is a like a loose-forward in his size and the way that he carries the ball.

"But it is not just a single thing in our defence, our defence is about the man who is making the tackle and the people who are around him and the support structure that we give everyone playing in that area.

"If we get that right then we expect the man to make his tackles - that is no different for our 10s in every game."

Beside Kiss, Paul O'Connell stressed the importance of discipline to the success of the current regime, as well as the imperative of players knowing their own roles.

When Keatley looks outside him, he will see two fellow Six Nations debutants in Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne, who impressed in November but will face a different challenge in their second outing together in the centre.

How that cabal of inexperienced campaigners go will be key to Ireland's performance.

Schmidt is sure to have prepared for every eventuality, and the expectation is that Murray's ability with the boot will ease the burden on Keatley and those outside him, while the experienced back-three will be expected to chase hard and win their own ball.

With conditions set to be favourable, Ireland may rely less on their kicking game but it is difficult to envisage much of a move away from what made them successful last year.

Set-piece dominance, accuracy in the tackle and at the breakdown, discipline and a clinical edge when chances present themselves will be the tenets on which success is built.

Keatley will need to kick his goals when the opportunity arises, while the bench will be asked to make their presence felt when theya re introduced.

Having concentrated on this game since coming into camp, Ireland will be well-versed in Italy's threats and, if they had any doubts that the home side would not be up for the occasion, they were dispelled by Parisse yesterday.

"I really feel that if Ireland play at 60pc or 70pc against us they are not going to win: they must play at 100pc to beat us," the Azzurri captain said.

Tough

"So it's going to be tough for Ireland. But for us, if we don't play at 110 or even 150pc, then we don't have any chance of winning.

"We know it's not enough to play with passion and energy against Ireland. We have to show that we can play quality rugby as well.

"We'll play against a really quality team and I'm really confident my team is ready to play a great match, I'm really confident Italy has the ability to compete seriously in the Six Nations."

The challenge is given greater complexity by the presence of these teams in the same pool at the World Cup later this year, even if you won't hear anyone involved admit it.

A shock Italian win would give Jacques Brunel's side a much-needed confidence boost at just the wrong time for Ireland, while it would put Schmidt's men on the back-foot at the start of a seismic year.

For Ireland, the repeated mantra is that they have only had eyes for this game, that Italy and only Italy are on their mind. It may be, as Kiss conceded, repetitive but the 'one game at a time' approach has served the champions well so far.

The rest of us, however, can think about the bigger picture; about what a full-fit Ireland could achieve under this coaching team this spring and the impact that will have when the world assemble in England next September.

That's the kind of talk that fills Schmidt's nightmares.

He has achieved almost everything he's been asked to since arriving in Ireland in 2010 and his stock is high and continuing to rise.

His team arrive in Rome as champions and overwhelming favourites but are missing some of their most influential generals.

They will arrive at the front line next week and the onus is on those sent into the fray is to keep the battle going into next week.

While they talk about performance levels and incremental improvement, a win is all Ireland need from the Stadio Olimpico. Blow off some cobwebs, get the points and go.

That will open the door for greater things and when it's all over, today's opener will be consigned to history.

It will certainly be closer than last year, but despite the absentees Ireland should prevail.

Verdict: Italy 18 Ireland 26

Read more: The race to win Six Nations is by no means a phoney war

Read more: Ireland can learn to live with the high expectations

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