Monday 16 September 2019

Alan Quinlan: Italy will feel wrath as Schmidt's astute selection should keep Ireland's foot on the gas

Paris victory will be long forgotten with Ireland having plenty of points to prove

Devin Toner will be ravenous to get stuck into the Italians after watching most of last weekend’s game from the bench. Photo: Sportsfile
Devin Toner will be ravenous to get stuck into the Italians after watching most of last weekend’s game from the bench. Photo: Sportsfile
Alan Quinlan

Alan Quinlan

The manner of last weekend's victory, the inaccuracies as much as the character-building finish, should be ringing alarm bells for Italy this afternoon.

It was a tremendous win considering the circumstances and Ireland's atrocious record in Paris, but Joe Schmidt will have had plenty of ammunition to keep his players on edge during what is traditionally the most laid-back match build-up during the Six Nations.

Mental preparation for Italy can be tricky but Schmidt will have been drilling home a number of messages this week to quash any risk of complacency creeping into the camp.

Ireland were blunt in attack at times at the Stade de France and Schmidt is clearly sending a message by sticking with the same starting backline and bringing Jordan Larmour on to the bench.

Spots are still up for grabs and the threat of being dropped remains one of the most powerful methods of motivation in a coach's arsenal.

It will not be going unnoticed that Ireland have been struggling to score tries against their leading Six Nations rivals, despite often enjoying large spells of dominance in possession and territory.

Ireland have now scored just six tries in a combined 10 Six Nations outings against France, Wales and England - including last weekend and their three previous campaigns - and bear in mind the championship-winning efforts of 2015 are a part of that concerning sequence.

Our attack has proven time and again, outside of the Six Nations window, that it can compete in shoot-outs with the best teams in the world, yet it has struggled to find that fluency in the spring.

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There has been a shift towards more expansive rugby in the northern hemisphere following the fallout from the 2015 World Cup, but that certainly hasn't consigned the traditional arm-wrestles in February and March to history.

The nature of the Six Nations, being essentially cup rugby, ensures that most of the games are tight and short on opportunities to really cut loose.

Schmidt, and of course Warren Gatland, favour a direct approach and while it might not please the eyes of the Antipodean purists, it is generally effective and should continue to be a core part of our game-plan.

But if we can get our backline firing too, it adds a completely different dimension and makes us an altogether different proposition.

If Ireland are to be realistic about winning this year's Championship they need to be more clinical in attack, and there is no better fixture to help find that sweet spot than Italy at home.

I wouldn't like to see Ireland having to chase a game against Wales or England without having shown the ruthlessness in attack required to win tight Test matches

Schmidt has sent a clear message to his players behind the scrum and he has been equally astute in his selections in the pack.

Devin Toner and Jack McGrath will be ravenous to get stuck into the Italians after watching most of last weekend's game from the bench.

Both will feel aggrieved not to have made the starting XV in Paris and will be looking to put themselves firmly in contention for starting spots against Wales in two weeks' time.

Picking Dan Leavy and Jack Conan in the back-row for their first Six Nations starts also makes a lot of sense; Leavy because he is the best available option at No 7 right now and was outstanding when introduced for the unfortunate Josh van der Flier last week, while Conan deserves another chance to impress in green having done so little wrong, and so much right, for Leinster over the past two seasons.

Both men will earn just their sixth caps this afternoon but neither is short on big-game experience.

It's very different to when I was handed my first Six Nations start against the Italians 17 years ago.

That 2001 afternoon in Rome, when Rob Henderson's hat-trick got us out of jail in a 41-22 victory, was a nerve-racking occasion for me but I found it a great help having fellow Munster men like Anthony Foley, David Wallace, Mick Galwey, John Hayes and Peter Clohessy around me in the pack.

Conan and Leavy will find similar comfort in having Leinster team-mates McGrath, Toner and Tadhg Furlong for company, and I expect both young back-rowers to excel this afternoon.

They will know their roles inside out before they set foot on the Aviva turf, and if they start to lose focus or fall below what is expected from Schmidt, you can be sure his lieutenant at No 10 will be ready to let them know.

Johnny Sexton said a couple of years ago that it doesn't matter how many changes are made in the Ireland team, the guys who come in need to know their role and just add to the system.

A conveyor-belt culture has been created and a game-plan implemented that cannot be compromised by the loss of one key individual, and it works.

How Ireland approach today's game tactically will also be particularly interesting.

There are a few areas that need improvement from last week, such as the kicking game and breakdown work, while I would also like to see them get danger men Keith Earls and Jacob Stockdale on the ball a bit more.

We have two of the best tactical kickers in the game in Sexton and Murray, while Rob Kearney's booming left boot is also an effective weapon, but I think they got caught between trying to kick and trying to attack in Paris.

There were also a few lapses in concentration around the breakdown, particularly around the speed of delivery to Murray, and the game could have played out so differently if they had built another two or three phases as the French were hanging on at times.

It's only 11 months since Wales - mostly through Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric - absolutely destroyed Ireland at the breakdown and it's an area that Schmidt's side really need to get right before Gatland's charges come to Dublin.

I'd also like to see us focus on our attacking maul.

It was an extremely effective weapon a couple of years ago and we just haven't seen enough of it of late.

It's a great way to score tries and to really drain the opposition.

Today Ireland need to first and foremost be dominant up front before they can expect to throw the ball around and score tries. A great way of doing that would be to get the maul working.

To use Earls and Stockdale to their most devastating effect, we, of course, need to be solid at the set-piece and efficient at the breakdown.

The attack needs a solid platform to work from and hopefully both of our wingers, who complement each other so well in terms of their skills, will get a chance to show what they can do today.

If they get enough opportunities, it could be a very long afternoon for Conor O'Shea's visitors.

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