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Gordon D’Arcy: Vital experimentation set to be limited by need to swat aside Italy

Ireland need to improve depth in a number of areas with frontrow top of the list

Sport’s capacity to be an emotional rollercoaster is common to those that play, coach and watch. Everyone that cares about an outcome has skin in the game and is separated only by perspective, an outlook that tends towards the extremes; delight or despair.

Having spent a large part of my life on that particular theme park ride, I could empathise when I bumped into former Lions and Wales international Gareth Thomas recently as he recounted the doom and gloom that has swept through the valleys with regard to the fortunes of the reigning Six Nations champions. Welsh rugby supporters have a sense of entitlement that is often at odds with the current state of affairs.

Wayne Pivac's side exceeded expectations in winning last year's tournament, but despite a gritty win over Scotland the nature of their defeat to Ireland on the opening weekend prompted one caller to a radio show to declare that Wales were now a second tier rugby nation.

Ireland’s nine-match winning streak came to an end at the Stade de France and while there were several aspects of the performance to admire it has tempered the euphoria arising from those wins in the Autumn Nations series. Andy Farrell’s team could have won the game in Paris but there would have been an element of larceny in it.

It did shine a light on a few areas that need to be addressed in relation to the ongoing evolution of Ireland’s approach, not so much in the manner in which Farrell’s team played but in the discrepancy in some areas between the team that started and the replacements.

As we move to the midpoint of the Six Nations, Ireland have ceded direct control in terms of winning the tournament outright. That prerogative is now with France alone as the only unbeaten side. Ireland must concentrate on winning the final three games, beginning with Italy at the Aviva stadium on Sunday afternoon.

The fact that the game doesn’t quicken the pulse in anticipation shouldn’t distract from the fact that the home side needs to win and win well to boost their points differential. That’s not intended as a slight on the Italians but a requirement for the home side to win convincingly and score tries.

The identity of the gaps that need to be bridged within the squad from starters to replacements is very clear and that may colour selection

The complexity of coaching within the Irish system will be clear to see when Farrell selects his team against Italy. Where France and England have greater depth in their rosters which allows them to make more changes without much diminution in quality, Ireland will tinker with selection on a much smaller scale.

Farrell's matchday 23 is likely to bear a familiar look. Gaps in some areas of the Irish depth chart reinforce this supposition. If Andrew Porter and Tadhg Furlong are handed the number one and three jerseys on Sunday, it's difficult to argue against the assertion that the back-up to admittedly two world class players is a little wider than ideal.

Cian Healy’s role is exactly where you would expect given his age, 20 minutes from the bench; starting at this level is possibly not realistic anymore. The succession stakes at tighthead prop is even less certain and it’s difficult to escape the feeling that Finlay Bealham is there purely because he has more experience at provincial level and knows the system.

The identity of the gaps that need to be bridged within the squad from starters to replacements is very clear and that may colour selection. The problem is that an injury to Porter or Furlong would render the matches against England and Scotland much tougher than they ought to be if there was less of a gap in standard. Furlong, fitness permitting, is likely to start all five matches despite coming into the tournament off the back of an injury.

The depth chart with relation to secondrow is unclear as well insofar as any injuries to one of James Ryan, Tadhg Beirne and Iain Henderson, would on the evidence of the squad mean that Ryan Baird or Kieran Treadwell would be promoted to the matchday 23, both of whom are lightly raced at this level and will continue to be under current selection policy.

It is funny that the areas we need to find players the most are those heavily populated with players untested at this level. The opportunity to do so is limited; there isn’t an easy Test match until November so against that backdrop most changes will be in the backrow, the centre and the back three where Ireland have depth of quality.

Starting Hume against Italy is a low risk given his talent and form but it feels a bench role may be the best for which he can hope

Driving rain and gale force winds made for ridiculously difficult playing conditions over the weekend in the United Rugby Championship but even allowing some mitigation for the elements the rugby was pretty underwhelming from all four provinces.

There were some fine individual displays illustrated by the contributions of Munster duo Gavin Coombes and Ben Healy. Coombes's power in his carrying, his ability to take tackles on his terms and offload offered a consistent reminder of his quality.

It will be instructive to see if the West Cork forward is entrusted with a start against Italy or an impact role from the bench. There is a logjam of talent in the backrow and it is only a matter of time before he adds to that headache.

At some point I wonder if Coombes, Caelan Doris and Jack Conan will at once be on the pitch and while you’d lose out in terms of a genuine openside flanker, there would be other obvious compensations. This is not a criticism in any shape or form of Josh van der Flier, whose work has been outstanding, it’s more about alternatives and variety.

Healy’s kicking game extricated his team from several potentially tricky situations and while Simon Zebo deservedly grabbed the headlines for his hat-trick, it was Healy’s footwork and delayed pass that set up the bonus-point try.

Returning to this weekend's Six Nations match, there is a compelling argument to perhaps have a look at Robbie Henshaw and James Hume as a centre partnership. With Scotland and England on the horizon, does Farrell plan on affording Henshaw and Ringrose game time together or has the Aki/Ringrose partnership done enough to stay in situ?

Starting Hume against Italy is a low risk given his talent and form but it feels a bench role may be the best for which he can hope. Disputing that notion is James Lowe who looked fit, fresh and energetic in a try-scoring cameo off the Leinster bench.

The back three has been turned on its head in recent weeks by the arrival of Mack Hansen. The Australian has tried and largely succeeded in making himself indispensable and as a result Robert Baloucoune’s chance of getting a start during this block of games seems less likely.

He didn’t put a foot wrong against the Dragons at the weekend but the current order of merit in the national squad may mean he has to bide his time. Lowe’s combative nature plus his left-foot kicking option may see him return with Hansen switching to the other wing.

These two wingers add so much variety and impact to the Irish attack, through very different methods but both equally appealing to watch. Their ability to get Ireland over the gainline and keep the ball alive and moving has been very important.

Hansen’s impact does show the value of decision making under pressure. Simple catch and pass, getting the ball to space or passing rather than creating a ruck has added a new dimension. While Hansen has the look of a pin hammer, Lowe is a meat cleaver, who attracts the ball, primarily by going looking for it.

Hugo Keenan is the best man to add some much needed balance to the attacking threat of Hansen and Lowe. Italy are in mitigation mode, trying to disrupt the opposition is a primary goal for them. Ireland will not try to smother them in the way France and England have, we will look to dominate possession and territory which will result in points.

Farrell and co are trying to primarily win the here and now and will select accordingly. Plans for the future are for another day

The biggest issue Ireland have this weekend is themselves, and the challenge is can they deliver a performance that is as composed as it was in crucial times against Wales and France? Italy do not pose the same threat, so in one way we will get a good insight into the ruthlessness of this Irish team.

We know that if Sexton starts, he will be a fulcrum. What we need to know is if they can be as clinical without him? So there is a juxtaposition to this game, on one hand we will learn very little because on balance we will have a settled team that will comprehensively beat Italy and on the other hand the lack of depth or inherent weaknesses will remain unchecked.

A win by exposing players at this level is more valuable than the manner of the result as we need to move away a little from relying exclusively on key personnel in some positions. Doing this under your own control rather than it being forced on you through injury would make sense.

Putting Tom O’Toole in against Italy and backing him would have been preferential rather than starting him against England knowing that it’s only because of injury. Injury has ruled him out but the fact that he wasn’t replaced suggests that the coaching team aren’t looking to Sunday’s game as a squad development opportunity.

Farrell and co are trying to primarily win the here and now and will select accordingly. Plans for the future are for another day.

It is a very tough remit for them and one that has rarely been navigated successfully by any of their predecessors (or anyone in sport); this dependency is not going away and the priority of winning the next match continues to trump everything else.