Sunday 22 July 2018

Bernard Jackman: Conceding 19 points a worry but potential loss of Furlong an even bigger one

10 February 2018; Tadhg Furlong of Ireland is substituted due to injury during the Six Nations Rugby Championship match between Ireland and Italy at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
10 February 2018; Tadhg Furlong of Ireland is substituted due to injury during the Six Nations Rugby Championship match between Ireland and Italy at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

Bernard Jackman

A routine win over Italy comes at a price - a potentially heavy price too as Ireland lost two key players and coughed up 19 easy second-half points from a position of dominance. What it will mean for our Championship hopes won't become clear until later in the tournament.

Tadhg Furlong was forced off in the early minutes with a hamstring injury and Robbie Henshaw's shoulder injury sustained when scoring Ireland's fifth try looked the most serious. Joe Schmidt had planned to blood Andrew Porter and Jordan Larmour in this game, but not under those circumstances.

We know both are serious prospects, but Furlong and Henshaw are important to Joe's game-plan. Our Championship hopes could ultimately depend on how serious Furlong's injury is as the English scrum in particular is incredibly strong and to go into that match without the best tighthead in the world would be difficult.

Thankfully, we now have a break week and that extra time will be crucial in getting Furlong assessed and hopefully fit to play. It was good to hear Schmidt's upbeat bulletin on the Wexford prop immediately after the game.

Sadly, I doubt Henshaw will play again in this Championship with what is thought to have been a dislocated shoulder. It's very unfortunate for Henshaw and Ireland, and I expect Chris Farrell to step in to replace him.

Wales in two weeks' time will be our biggest challenge to date. Yes, France's physicality was a big test, but Wales will be a much bigger threat from an attacking point of view, and Henshaw's defensive qualities would certainly be missed.

It was clear from early on yesterday that the Italians were low on confidence and quality and that this match was going to be a good opportunity to boost our points tally and give players game-time. The 19 points certainly leave a sour taste, especially the manner of them. It's hard to be critical of a team when you score eight tries and 56 points but Andy Farrell will not be happy with the three tries conceded and it's worth nothing that 19 points is the most Italy have ever scored in the Six Nations in Dublin.

The Italians, despite having a brilliant head coach in Conor O'Shea, were totally outclassed and look to be at a very low ebb. However, there are some signs of progress in their domestic game with Benetton Treviso and Zebre having won nine games in the Guinness Pro14 this season already and their under 20s were also very competitive on Friday night against Ireland. The problem for Italy is that O'Shea's predecessors have focused almost exclusively on the senior side and ignored - or weren't able to influence - the structures underneath that are so important for sustainability in elite sport.

O'Shea, through his experience as head of the RFU Academy and also having worked with the English Institute of Sport, will ensure that they get those areas sorted but in the meantime it's important that they increase their competitiveness.

We often learn Ireland's mindset in the first kick-off reception of the match. Against certain opponents we will exit through the boot of Conor Murray immediately or after one phase to get our winger and back-row back on their feet. Yesterday it was clear that Joe Schmidt wanted to attack from deep, so we carried out of our own 22 using both sides of the pitch, releasing Keith Earls and Jacob Stockdale into space.

Our first kickable penalty came in the eighth minute and Ireland opted to kick to the corner. We didn't score directly but sustained pressure and strong carries from Stockdale and Porter tightened the Italian defence and a great line from Henshaw against the grain got us our first try. That set us on the road. The result was never really in doubt after that.

Two minutes later, we saw more ambitious and creative play from Ireland. Johnny Sexton put in a brilliant chip kick to exploit Earls' pace against Sergio Parisse and force a turnover. Brilliant hands from Dan Leavy, Stockdale and Jack Conan - who also was forced off with an injury - put Murray in from 30 metres out.

It wasn't long before Bundee Aki got in on the scoring act, getting his first try for Ireland in what was a mirror image of Henshaw's try. The Italians looked shell-shocked and Ireland had the bonus point wrapped up before half-time when a brilliant turnover from Leavy at a midfield ruck on the half-way line gave Aki a mismatch against the Italian hooker Luca Bigi and he beat him easily to put Earls in.

Stockdale had another fine outing in a green jersey. He added two tries to his fledgling Irish career and he now has six tries in six caps and yesterday he rediscovered the confidence and form we saw him display in November with two excellent finishes, particularly the one from deep when he intercepted Parisse.

There were plenty of positives to take from this win. Ireland's attack was more elaborate and cohesive than it was in Paris and it's obvious that the dry conditions and the poorer opposition allowed us to play on the front foot and with quick ball and, particularly in the first half, we looked a threat every time in possession.

Joe Schmidt is one of the best coaches in the world and he has two weeks to prepare for Wales. He will need every bit of it, despite their defeat to England yesterday. Our biggest challenge so far is just around the corner.

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