Tuesday 26 March 2019

Tony Ward: 'Disappointing start to tournament needs to be blown away by a Rome performance worthy of World Cup challengers'

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Conor Murray must box clever. Photo: Sportsfile
Conor Murray must box clever. Photo: Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Let's call a spade a spade. Given where we stood just three months ago as reigning Grand Slam champions and having just beaten New Zealand on the back of a blemish-free November, this has been a massively disappointing 2019 Six Nations to date.

Much has been made of public expectation and the level at which that unquantifiable factor now stands but whatever else - and there have been mitigating circumstances - we have come up short given our recent achievements, ability and strength in depth.

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We can all agree, team management included, that our form in the two games to date hasn't come remotely close to the level of aspiration within this squad.

England didn't just beat us, they absolutely pulverised us in that opening-day encounter in Dublin.

The final scoreline and 12-point difference failed to reflect the gulf in performance between the squads that day.

Even defending Grand Slam champions are only human so that defeat and the nature of it knocked us for six.

It was a reality check for one and all, myself included.

We are good, better than we have ever been, and yet not quite as good as we think we are. Still potential World Cup challengers? Yes, but with much work still to be done in the interim.

The win in Scotland was functional but it was hugely relevant psychologically.

We won ugly but just as England had done to us on our patch a week before for 80 minutes, we suffocated the Scots on their sod in that second half at Murrayfield.

It wasn't pretty but it was hugely effective and more than acceptable given the pre-game circumstances.

A win of any hue against the Scots was essential in getting this Six Nations challenge back on track.

To that end it was mission accomplished, so we travel to the Stadio Olimpico with a degree of confidence that was understandably lacking in those seven days post-England.

Given its nature (at least four competitive games in quick succession) no tournament depends on early momentum more. Turn the clock back 12 months to Paris and Johnny Sexton's get-out-of-jail drop goal and you get the drift.

Right now that momentum lies with the Welsh and English, although something has got to give at the Principality Stadium later today.

For us it's the Italian job and while the politically-correct sound bites have been coming out of Carton House (the winning bonus point not being on the agenda, for example) rest assured that behind closed doors that is not the case.

The primary objective today is to win and to win well and that means by way of a five-point return.

It does not reflect any arrogance on our part but if we are to be credible World Cup competitors later in the year then a bonus-point win against a team that have not won a match in this competition since 2015 (19 defeats in a row) has to represent the bottom-line aspiration.

Conor O'Shea, along with Stephen Aboud and Michael Bradley (at Zebre), are doing all they can to put club and underage structures in place that feed into the national mix. Whether they will be given the time I'm not so sure but in O'Shea they have a top man who, irrespective of results in his time in Italy, will I hope return to the Irish fold (and not to England) in some capacity.

For now the wish-list is short and simple.

First and foremost, we must build on Murrayfield with a dominant winning performance with a five-point winning return.

Secondly, it is important that we develop our game beyond the obvious aerial bombardment which while serving us well in times past will not lead to a meaningful World Cup assault in seven months' time.

There are many ways to skin an Italian cat and no one knows that better than Joe. We will have more space today than against the English and the Scots so a game-plan way beyond slavish adherence to the box-kick is an essential, much more than a wish.

What we have achieved under Schmidt to date has been phenomenal but in order to take it to the next level (as in the World Cup), we need to plant seeds through ball in hand and not in the air ad nauseum.

There is a sensible balance and that has to be the unstated aim in Rome tomorrow.

We need to challenge through dexterity of foot and speed of hand in addition to rugby in the air.

Opportunity knocks for the first time in this championship to show soft hands and quick feet.

I am not underestimating the guaranteed physicality and line-speed that comes with this fixture but the absence of Sergio Parisse and his bonding influence makes for a golden opportunity to put us in the race for that final date in Cardiff (result today pending) in three weeks' time.

Individual and collective confidence took a knock after England raided the Aviva.

To some extent - chiefly in terms of winning - that was restored in Edinburgh so this is not just any old Italian fixture.

It is heaven-sent and represents a golden opportunity to prepare for the French as we thought we had for the English on the opening weekend because that game will be brutish.

Unfortunately the French, as currently constituted, know no other way, although for them too opportunity knocks against the weakened Scots.

It is an opportunity too for key players to restore confidence and chief in that respect has to be our half-backs.

On their day they are up there with the best but right now, due in the main to injury and lack of game time, they are struggling.

A successful Ireland needs Conor Murray and Sexton at full tilt and in cruise control.

They are both great players but each depends on confidence as much as the next to fuel performance. Take that away and even the very best struggle.

Winning is the very bottom line but this Rome trip demands so much more again than the Edinburgh game two weekends ago.

This is our chance to make a statement and I expect us to grab it in every way.

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