Friday 24 November 2017

Five key areas where Ireland can dominate Italy and kick-start Six Nations challenge

Scotland defeat was based on under-performance rather than any strategic failings

Ian Keatley leads the squad during yesterday’s warm-up at Carton House. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Ian Keatley leads the squad during yesterday’s warm-up at Carton House. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

When he was preparing his Ireland side for their World Cup clash with Italy at London's Olympic Stadium in 2015, Joe Schmidt organised a training session against Conor O'Shea's Harlequins.

His squad were staying at 'Quins' base at Guildford, Surrey ahead of the pool clash and the two coaches felt it was a good way of adding some spice to training.

So, O'Shea has seen the way the Ireland coach works at close-quarters, he has analysed his team on live television and now his mission is to stop them in front of the bright lights in his new role as Italy coach.

Knowing what Ireland do and stopping it are different things, but Scotland - coached by two men with intimate knowledge of the Schmidt play-book in Vern Cotter and Nathan Hines - showed opposition coaches the way.

Hampered by the dreaded six-day turnaround since his side's defeat to Wales at the Stadio Olimpico last weekend, much of O'Shea's work will have been done away from the training pitch this week.

Learning from their own loss will be one thing. Learning from Ireland's will be the other. For the visiting team, tomorrow's game will be about righting the wrongs of Murrayfield where they played at a level well below their best.

Jamie Heaslip in high spirits. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Jamie Heaslip in high spirits. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Selling the dummy

Ireland will work on O'Shea's side, but it would be no surprise to hear that they have focused largely on themselves this week.

Italy will ask them different, probably simpler, questions but it is about the work that they have done on their own systems that will pay dividends.

In particular, Schmidt will want more from those who don't have the ball when his side have possession.

If it looked like Scotland knew where the ball was going to go, it was partly because they had done their homework but also because Ireland did such a poor job in selling them other options.

It is always hard to get past Conor Murray and Beauden Barrett did well to do so Picture: Sportsfile

Under Schmidt, there are not supposed to be decoy or dummy runners; everyone is an option. So, regardless of where you think Paddy Jackson or Conor Murray are planning on putting the ball, you must have your hands out offering a viable alternative.

Too often on Saturday, the Irish runners who knew they weren't getting the ball had their hands by their sides and the Scots could largely ignore them and focus on the man they knew they wanted to get the ball.

Schmidt calls it animation and it would be a shock this weekend if Ireland didn't have far more of it. Watch for when Paddy Jackson has the ball with men running at different angles. If they are visually offering themselves then the message has gotten through.

If not, Ireland's carriers will be sitting ducks again.

Adding a counter- attack

The charge has been laid at Ireland's back-three that they don't offer enough when running the ball back, but if Sunday's loss to Wales is anything to go by then Italy will give them opportunities.

Perhaps given their lack of time as a unit, the Azzurri kicked the ball - at times aimlessly - and invited Wales to hit back. Perhaps low on confidence, Rob Howley's men mostly just hoisted the ball back up in the air, but had Leigh Halfpenny and George North looked in-field they'd have noticed that the Italian chasing line was utterly disjointed.

With forwards taking it as an opportunity to rest, the Welsh could have cut a swathe if they'd been clever and there is an opportunity for incision if they are brave.

Returning the ball invites the risk of turnovers, but the reward is great.

Keeping the structure

Like France, Italy look at their best when the game becomes unstructured and they can get their offloads going.

That can invite Irish intercepts as the men in green look to make their pressure pay, but by and large they'll enjoy themselves more if they can keep their patience and work their way through their own attacking structures and force the Italians to do the same.

Paddy Jackson of Ireland kicks a penalty during the RBS Six Nations Rugby Championship match between Scotland and Ireland at Murrayfield. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

By rushing up on the outside and man-marking Jackson on the loop, the Scottish players disrupted the Irish backline but if Ireland can put them on the back-foot by winning their collisions and add more subtlety and diversion they can give themselves more space to execute their plays.

If things get loose, it will suit Sergio Parisse and his colleagues who want to get in behind by winning collisions and off-loading, whereas Ireland will prefer to play to their patterns and dominate the ball.

Lineout security

After the defence, the set-piece will be a crucial area of focus this weekend. For all that they leaked three tries in Edinburgh, Ireland would be going to Rome on the back of a win had it not been for their malfunctioning lineout last weekend.

They lost three throws, but were also disrupted on the balls they claimed, the Scots expertly splintering their efforts by playing on the edge of the laws.

Devin Toner

Whether it was Richie Gray getting both hands on Devin Toner as he came down or John Barclay coming around and ripping the ball, stopping the Irish maul from forming, there was a succession of missed chances that were summed up by the truck-and-trailer penalty when the score was 7-0 and Ireland were marching towards a try.

Donnacha Ryan's return will tighten things up in the engine room, but the absence of Peter O'Mahony limits Devin Toner's options out of touch.

If Ireland can be better out of touch it will be a far easier day given the vast majority of their scores come from lineout ball.

Body height

Last summer, Springbok coach Allister Coetzee couldn't get over Ireland's body height in contact, regularly returning to it as the reason his team struggled to cope with the tourists during the three-Test series.

On Saturday, Ireland's height in contact, either with the ball, at the ruck or even at the maul, was too high and it allowed Scotland win collisions and repel them.

Italy, for all of their woes, still have a powerful pack who will look to win the close-in collisions. Ireland must get lower.

Irish Independent

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