Sunday 19 November 2017

'Depression' lifts for relieved Schmidt

Ireland 58 Italy 15

Andrew Trimble powers his way over to score the first of Ireland’s nine tries against Italy on Saturday. Photo: Ramsey Cardy / Sportsfile
Andrew Trimble powers his way over to score the first of Ireland’s nine tries against Italy on Saturday. Photo: Ramsey Cardy / Sportsfile
Ireland's Fergus McFadden after scoring his side's ninth try. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / Sportsfile
Players compete for the ball in the line-out during the Six Nations international rugby union match between Ireland and Italy. Photo: Paul Faith/AFP Photo
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Italy were the perfect guests at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday as Ireland managed to lift the gloom for a little while at least.

A perennial winner, Joe Schmidt conceded that the run of four games without a win got under his skin and, while he never doubted his methods or the notion that his side would return to winning ways, he was relieved all the same to notch up a victory and bask for a moment in some glory.

The Azzurri's performance was best summed up by their talismanic captain Sergio Parisse who said it was "a disaster" and he wasn't wrong.

The paucity of the opposition wasn't Ireland's problem. Their next five games are against an improving Scotland, South Africa away in three successive weeks and New Zealand. They'll take the nine tries and happily move on.

Nobody is suggesting that this win is a panacea for Ireland's ills, but for a team who had only scored two tries in the previous 240 minutes of rugby it was a cathartic exercise that should help lift the mood at Carton House this week as the Six Nations reaches its conclusion.

Schmidt has been putting a brave face on things during the post World Cup slump as he dealt with a run of poor results and a batch of new players who are struggling to come up to the required standard.

Yet before the game, he conceded that he was feeling the heat as his methods were questioned for the first time of his Ireland tenure and in the aftermath he expanded on the effect that being out of the running for the Six Nations with two weeks to go has had on him.


"Look, I came to this part of the world on the back of play-offs in Super Rugby and play-offs in France for years and play-offs with Leinster and a couple of championships. . . it's been a bit depressing to be honest," he said.

"At the same time, I don't think anything has changed in terms of how much I question what we do and reflect on what we do and try to help players get better at what they do.

"But it does give you confidence if you get a good result, it gives you confidence if the performance is good as well.

"Sometimes you sneak a result, you just win ugly and you're happy with that, but sometimes you walk away and you think: 'that's the sort of performance that players worked really hard to deliver and the players deserved that performance, they deserved that result and that's really satisfying.'

"In the last few weeks, it hasn't quite fallen that way and that's been frustrating and disappointing and a little bit confidence-sapping, because you want to get them over the line and enough of the small margins to fall your way."

As Schmidt was speaking, England and Wales were battling it out for Ireland's title and his mission is to restore his team to a level where they can compete again.

For all that they are not the force of last season, they remain a competitive entity in this tournament. They could and should have beaten Wales and France and left Twickenham with regrets. Against Italy, they proved that they can dish out a hiding when it's on the cards.

We'll get a true measure of where Ireland stand next week against a Scottish side that is improving under Vern Cotter's stewardship who won't afford the home side the kind of gifts that the Italians did.

Yet there was much to admire about the way Schmidt's men went about their task, with Jamie Heaslip's first try a score that will be remembered long after the game is consigned to the facile victories folder.

Again, Simon Zebo showed what an attacking force he can be at full-back and his performance will have given Schmidt food for thought and Rob Kearney something to be worried about.

Through no fault of his own, Fergus McFadden had become a stick to beat the head coach with but he showed his versatility and prowess, while Donnacha Ryan's man of the match award was reward for a man who is beginning to become an integral part of this team.

After an attritional month, Schmidt left Ballsbridge with no new injury worries to concern him and is likely to keep faith with the same men next week.

Josh van der Flier continued his impressive start to life in international rugby, while the Connacht contingent grew to five at the end and the sight of Pat Lam's forwards passing the ball so effortlessly at the end might just see a few more men from the west being added to the squad over time.

With Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton running the show and the set-piece utterly dominant, the tries flowed early and often.

Andrew Trimble was the first to go over, followed by Jack McGrath and CJ Stander before Heaslip finished off a length of the field effort that began with a Sexton wraparound followed by a Zebo offload and ended with McFadden putting the No 8 over.

That gave Ireland a healthy lead at half-time and when Jared Payne picked off Edoardo Padovani's pass to coast over, it was clear that Ireland were in for a comfortable day.

The separation on the scoreboard allowed Schmidt bring on the bench and Heaslip, Ian Madigan, Sean Cronin and McFadden all got over for scores, as Italy crossed for a pair through their impressive full-back David Odiete and Leonardo Sarto to add some material to the video review.

After a claustrophobic Six Nations, there was a cathartic feel to the win as Ireland played with a bit more freedom than normal.

"The licence to play is always there," Schmidt said.

"You just get a bit more suffocated when you're up against sides that are very, very well organised. Wales attack with their defence, they don't tend to convert massive scores and what they do is they suffocate and strangle opposition.

"It's harder when you play them or when you play England to get the sort of freedom to play like that. I think the players really enjoyed that opportunity because it's not very often that you get that in a Test match, particularly not a Six Nations Test match."

Ireland - S Zebo; A Trimble (F McFadden temp 21-28), J Payne (F McFadden 72), R Henshaw (F McFadden temp 37-40;), K Earls; J Sexton (I Madigan 50), C Murray (K Marmion 60); J McGrath (F Bealham 66), R Best (capt, S Cronin 50), M Ross (N White 55), D Ryan, D Toner (U Dillane 55), CJ Stander (R Ruddock 62), J van der Flier, J Heaslip.

Italy - D Odiete; L Sarto, M Campagnaro, G Garcia (K Haimona 55), M Bellini; E Padovani, G Pallazzani (A Lucchese 63); A Lovotti (M Zanusso 72), D Giazzon (O Fabiani 55), P Ceccarelli, G Biagi (A Steyn 36), M Fuser (Q Geldenhuys 27), F Minto, A Zanni, S Parisse (capt).

Ref - A Gardner (Australia)

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