Friday 19 January 2018

Winning is everything as Ireland look to get back on track by putting away struggling Azzurri

Ireland's Finlay Bealham. Photo: David Maher / Sportsfile
Ireland's Finlay Bealham. Photo: David Maher / Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

The equation is simple for Joe Schmidt and his players today. Winning is everything.

Since the defeat to Argentina at last year's World Cup, the mood music around Irish rugby has been glum, bordering on morose. The draw against Wales offered hope, but defeats in Paris and Twickenham confirmed that a third championship in succession was beyond a team deprived of their retired former captain Paul O'Connell and a host of senior players through injury.

Winless in four games, the soon-to-be-dethroned Six Nations champions pitch up to the graveyard slot as a measly appetiser to the main event.

Over in England and Wales, there has been giddy talk of titles as Eddie Jones and Warren Gatland build towards what should be a brutally enthralling decider in Twickenham.

This is the first time during Schmidt's reign that Ireland have not been part of the equation and that fact does not sit comfortably on his or his players' shoulders.

The silverware the New Zealander has secured since landing on these shores in 2010 should afford him time to breathe during a difficult run of form as he tries to build a new team and it was he who used the word "transition" after the loss to England, but he sometimes doesn't make life easy for himself with his selections.

Only those on the fringes are calling for the head coach's head, but even he knows he could do with a result to lessen the heat.

On Thursday, there was a palpable sense that he was arguing his case which seems incredible given his record, but such is life at the top of the tree. His predecessor was removed after defeat to Italy on the back of a similar run of results and he himself used the word "shocker" to describe a loss against the tournament minnows who are also winless after three games.

That the head coach has fielded his strongest possible team for this game shows just how seriously he values this result.

While others called for him to embrace the fact that he is not chasing a trophy for the first time and have a look at the alternatives, the head coach has reached for his senior men.

He wants to finish this campaign on a high by beating Italy and Scotland at home, before the daunting challenge of a three-Test tour of South Africa is followed by games against New Zealand and Australia in November.

Finlay Bealham, promoted to the bench after Cian Healy's latest injury, will become the fifth new cap of this Six Nations if he is introduced and Schmidt is happy to proceed with what he has.

The prop's hamstring strain was the latest disruption in a campaign that has been far from smooth sailing, but Ireland know that it is time to shelve the excuses.

Italy have been competitive in this championship but their team is largely made up of players from Treviso and Zebre, the worst sides in the Pro12.

For all that Sergio Parisse lifts those around him, there is not enough support for the superb No 8 to turn the tide.

The Azzurri's scrum is not what it once was and Scotland managed to get the upper hand on them in that department, which means Jack McGrath, Rory Best and Mike Ross will be targeting dominance at the set-piece.

The lineout will be a key focus for the captain and Devin Toner after England did so much damage on Ireland's ball in Twickenham.

"With hookers as well as second rows and callers, if you lose a lineout it kinda always eats at you, to be honest," the Leinster lock admitted. But I think over the years you learn that if a couple don't go your way then it's not the end of the world.

"We know we're a good lineout, we kinda know that, we've got good processes, so I think it's just being able to put it behind us and move on, to be honest. Against every Italian team the pack is a very important part of their game.

"They love to kind of sap the energy, the scrums sap your energy and they do like to front up in the mauls as well so it is tiring as a pack player but that's one of the things we pride ourselves on, our fitness, and I think if we're able to counteract that we'll be all right."

If Ireland can counteract the Italian pack effort, then they have the tools outside to do damage. With Schmidt continuing with Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton to dictate the game, the hosts will look to bring Simon Zebo into the game from full-back, while Robbie Henshaw demonstrated what he can do when offered half a yard in London.

The lack of tries so far will sting Ireland, who have been able to cut opposition defences open without finishing the job.

Composure isn't something that they can glean on the training pitch and it will only come from match scenarios.

For the newcomers, it is important to see the long hours of analysis and hard work on the training pitch bear fruit in a green jersey. For everyone, a few scores would certainly help lift the mood.

Defensively, Ireland were exposed by the Italians at the World Cup in a way that was repeated by Argentina with greater success.

In Michele Campagnaro and Leonardo Sarto they have some potent backs, but departing coach Jacques Brunel has taken a risk with his half-backs and Ireland will look to target the fresh faces of Zebre pair Edoardo Padovani and Guglielmo Palazzani.

Although he won't be around to see the fruits of selecting the inexperienced pair, the Frenchman has decided he has little to lose and has given them the opportunity.

Schmidt opted for experience over exposure where possible in the knowledge that the pressure is on and that a win is the only thing that truly matters in the here and now.

Irish Independent

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