Monday 19 February 2018

Coach under no illusions about the need to improve

Ireland must raise their game in order to match England

Nick Purewal

JOE SCHMIDT believes England set the Six Nations "benchmark" in their victory over Wales, leaving Ireland already chasing to keep up and hold on to their title.

Ireland boss Schmidt believes his side must improve "between 30 and 40 per cent" from their win over Italy to stand any chance of reaching England's early level.

Stuart Lancaster's side set the standard with a 21-16 victory in Cardiff, and head coach Schmidt claimed in Rome yesterday his Ireland side are already playing catch-up. Schmidt offered up a must-do-better report after tries from Conor Murray and Tommy O'Donnell, while Leonardo Ghiraldini was in the sin-bin, sealed victory in Rome.

"The benchmark was set by England last night. England just kept the pressure right on Wales and the physical nature of that battle means we've got a bit of work to do, without a doubt," said Schmidt.

"And we'll have to roll our sleeves up early on next week and hopefully put together a sufficiently-improved performance to be competitive against France.

"We were between 30 and 40 per cent off that against Italy; we wouldn't have lived with them last night. And I thought Wales were pretty good.

"For us, we certainly need to up our game. I do think that part of it was the pressure Italy put on us but, at the same time, I know we can do better than that and we're going to have to.

"I think Italy will improve through the tournament as well, they showed glimpses of what they are capable of. But you pick up two months after November with a number of changes: we had six of the starting 15 that we had this time last year, so that in itself presents a challenge."

Luckless flanker Sean O'Brien suffered a hamstring injury in the warm-up and was forced out of his first Test action since November 2013.

Schmidt lamented O'Brien's loss, with the Leinster back-rower only just fit after 14 months of shoulder problems, but he remains hopeful that O'Brien will be fit to face France in Dublin next weekend.

"It was the very last thing Seán did in the warm-up; he just put his foot down, it slid out from under him and he twinged his hamstring," said Schmidt. "His power's really good, it was probably a marginal decision at the time, but we didn't want a repeat of what happened when we came here last time, where we lost a few."

Hooker Rory Best was withdrawn in the second half as a precaution, after taking a knock to the head, but is expected to be available for the France game.

Schmidt added: "Rory's fine, he did get a knock and we decided to err on the side of caution with him as well. He'll follow the return to play protocols, just because we want to be fairly careful there."

Schmidt admitted he felt 27-year-old Six Nations debutant Ian Keatley was "nervous", but praised the Munster man's flawless goal-kicking.

"Obviously he kicked 100 per cent from the tee and that allowed us to establish some scoreboard pressure and, without that, it would have been difficult," said Schmidt.

"In the game, I felt at times he was probably a little nervous, and we'll have a chat about that. That experience will help him acquit himself in the future."

Flanker Alessandro Zanni and centre Michele Campagnaro are doubts for Italy's clash with England next weekend, as both men suffered knee problems and will face further assessment.

Captain Sergio Parisse called on the Azzurri to overhaul their failing line-out or face serious punishment against the English at Twickenham.

"We only had 30 per cent possession and that's not enough," said Parisse. "I didn't think Ireland put us under huge pressure but they were better in the line-out and they had the ball most of the time.

"You can't defend for 80 minutes against a team like Ireland. Next week we must improve our line-outs and have more possession if we want to be competitive at Twickenham."

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