Sunday 18 March 2018

Tony Ward: Schmidt could regret passing up chance to experiment

Struggling Italy offered perfect platform for new combinations

The Italian game was made for experimenting with Jared Payne at full-back. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
The Italian game was made for experimenting with Jared Payne at full-back. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

I have no control over the headline that accompanies whatever piece I write. That task is undertaken by those of a more artistic bent. In my pre-match column on Saturday the banner line read 'Even a handsome victory would fail to make up for this disappointing selection'.

I stand over that headline irrespective of what transpired in the 80 minutes of encouraging Irish rugby in Lansdowne Road that followed. Eleven tries and 73 points scored makes for a decent level of entertainment at least. Those at a rugby international for the first time - including friends of mine - will be back for more and that I get. But there is a much bigger picture.

Those who fail to see it are bordering on blindness. Italian rugby is in a dire state. Back in 2000, Billy Lavery, the then president of the IRFU, spoke for all of us when welcoming the Italian Federation's "elevation to this wonderful championship. I have no doubt that the inclusion of Italy further enriches the event".

The score that March afternoon? Ireland 60, Italy 13. Ring any bells? Suffice to say that 16 years on while the cultural enrichment is a given, with Rome surpassing Edinburgh and Paris in terms of appeal for the visiting supporter, the state of Italian rugby is of serious concern.

From Pro12 through Champions Cup up to Six Nations and beyond, the Azzurri are failing to keep pace with the rest and their struggles must surely worry the powers that be in European rugby.

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On Saturday, Italy's troubles were there for all to see. This was an international team playing way below international standard. From an Irish playing perspective, credit Joe Schmidt, Rory Best and the rest for the manner in which we dispatched them. You can only put away the opposition as it is presented and Ireland did that to telling effect. In terms of morale in the camp, it will certainly boost confidence but from a personal perspective I still feel this was a golden opportunity lost and Joe Schmidt knows it.

So when he says, "Wales attack with their defence, what they tend to do is suffocate and strangle opposition. It's harder when you play them or play England to get that sort of freedom", to me the sub-text reads: 'Against the Italians we get the sort of freedom to play like that'.

I do accept the head coach at his word when he adds that "the licence to play is always there, but you do get a bit more suffocated when you're up against sides that are very, very well organised".

The Italians right now are anything but organised and Schmidt knows that better than anyone.

LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 12: Maro Itoje of England drives on during the RBS Six Nations match between England and Wales at Twickenham Stadium on March 12, 2016 in London, England. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

We are very fortunate to have the head coach we have pulling the strings, but as of now he is pulling them too tight. Against Ireland, England's Maro Itoje made his first full start in place of the injured Joe Launchbury. Launchbury was back and available for Saturday's massive match against the Welsh but Itoje retained his place with Launchbury replacing Courtney Lawes on the bench.

Josh van der Flier and Stuart McCloskey both made their Test debuts in the same game. Van der Flier retained his place because Sean O'Brien was still unavailable, but with Jared Payne back fit and firing, McCloskey did not even make the 23, although I fully accept the utility-player rationale behind the replacement selection.

However, the chance to trial Payne at full-back with McCloskey and Rob Henshaw still in situ was lost. Simon Zebo had an outstanding 80 minutes and should be a starter anyway - but wearing the No 11 and with a licence to roam.

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Stuart McCloskey (SPORTSFILE)

With Rob Kearney out, the Italian job was made for the McCloskey, Henshaw, Payne experiment at 12, 13 and 15 and if anything the paucity of the opposition on Saturday highlighted this missed opportunity even more. And sorry Joe, but the "we haven't run Jared (at full-back) in training" line cuts no ice. If not, why not?

In a sense I am glad to be addressing this again on the back of a comprehensive win because it is all too easy to wade in for change when things are going belly-up.

Of course a win was vital to get the show back on the road but at the Aviva against this Italian side, that was guaranteed.

Only the facile nature of the win and the paucity of the Italian resistance caught us out.

Oh, and just for the record, while I am 100pc with the head coach when he says he picks players for Ireland not out of any provincial allegiance, equally I don't buy his suggestion that he "wasn't even aware of the fact there were five Connacht players on board on Saturday".

This former headmaster is too meticulous not to have noticed that stat! While we must take the quality of the opposition (a misnomer in this instance) into account, there were very definite positives too for Ireland.

Donnacha Ryan, Ireland, is tackled by Andrea Lovotti, left, and Sergio Parisse, Italy. RBS Six Nations Rugby Championship, Ireland v Italy. Aviva Stadium, Lansdowne Road, Dublin. Picture credit: Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE

The lineout was back on track with all three locks - Donnacha Ryan, Devin Toner and Ultan Dillane - firing on all cylinders. Of the replacements, I was particularly delighted that Ian Madigan, Sean Cronin and Fergus McFadden got some decent game time.

The situation regarding Rory Best and Irish captaincy needs little elaboration but were I the upcoming Lions coach I know one Irish hooker I would be ticking for inclusion on that flight to New Zealand and his surname name doesn't begin with B or S.

And for what it's worth I still wish Henshaw hadn't chosen the Leinster route because what is happening under Pat Lam and through the Academy at Connacht is special. There are so many more working their way into contention for U-20 and Wolfhound selection.

All of which brings me back to the fundamental point of loosening the shackles.

The Scots are now faced with a six-day turnaround and must travel to Dublin but they are in a good place under Vern Cotter. Expect a belter and for it an unchanged Ireland side.

Irish Independent

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