Ireland ready for relaunch as Italy brace for backlash
Schmidt’s side cannot afford to slip up against tournament underdogs in Rome
Six Nations preview: Italy v Ireland
Venue: Stadio Olimpico, Rome.
Kick-off: 3.25pm local time/2.25pm Irish time
TV: Live on RTE and ITV.
Staring down the barrel of perhaps the ultimate no-win scenario, Ireland are 1/20 favourites away to Italy and seeking to avoid back-to-back opening defeats for the first time since 1998. And it doesn’t help that a significant question mark hangs over Rory Best’s availability for Saturday’s match due to a “stomach bug”.
For starters, it means the captain wasn’t present at the traditional, eve-of-match run-out, the so-called captain’s run, in the Stadio Olimpico on Friday. But the doubt over his ability to lead the side out compounds the absence of Seán Cronin from the tournament due to a torn hamstring.
Suddenly, Ireland could conceivably be missing Best’s 101 caps as well as Cronin’s 55, with the uncapped Niall Scannell (an unused sub last week) thrust into the starting team, and James Tracy, who scored a try on his debut off the bench against Canada, flown over on Friday afternoon as potential cover off the bench. In other words, 156 caps to be replaced by one.
But as forwards coach Simon Easterby said of Scannell: “He wouldn’t be in the squad if we didn’t feel confident that he can transfer some really good form from Munster, certainly in the European Cup, and that’s the reason he is on the bench because we feel that he’s stepped up over the last couple of months.
“His preparation has been really good. Like all the players, they have to prepare to start the game or if there’s an injury during the game they have to prepare to come on early. So we’re really confident that Niall can step up when asked.”
Jamie Heaslip would step in with “absolutely no problem” as captain. “It happened to us with Paulie [O’Connell] in one of our first championships, so if it has to be it has to be,” said Heaslip, in reference to the opening Six Nations game of 2014, when Dan Tuohy started and Heaslip was stand-in captain for the 28-6 win over Scotland.
“We’ve got a really good leadership group and if one guy isn’t there for whatever reason that leadership group gets tighter and really drives the collective.”
The weight of history in Ireland’s favour is considerable. Since the vintage Azzurri team of the mid- to late-90s, which beat Ireland three times in a row, Ireland have dominated this fixture, winning 22 of the 26 meetings overall and 21 of the last 22. The Six Nations record is 16-1 in Ireland’s favour.
Along the way there have been several arm wrestles, including four one-score wins, such as Ireland’s 16-9 World Cup pool win in London’s Olympic Stadium 16 months ago. However, these have been interspersed with huge Irish victories. Last season at the Aviva Stadium was a case in point, when Ireland won 58-19, with their haul of nine tries a championship record.
Italy’s only victory in the Six Nations in their last 16 games was against Scotland in Edinburgh in the middle weekend of 2015. They have not won a Test match at Stadio Olimpico since beating Ireland in the final weekend of 2013 and, remarkably, they have also lost their round-two encounter every year since they joined the Six Nations in 2000.
For Italy coach Conor O’Shea, therefore, the challenge has been as much mental as physical, and after last week’s loss against Wales, remains so.
“There’s a lot to change, but there’s a lot to work with. I say to the players that ‘if people keep on telling you you’re shit at your job every day, if every day I tell you that, you start believing it.’ And we have to get the group and say: ‘Stop feeling sorry for yourselves and get on with it. And we create change. I’m not putting any pressure on you. You’ll judge me on results and I’ll say I don’t care. I’ll take that responsibility. But you, the players, play for 80 minutes and fight tooth and nail.’”
O’Shea texted Schmidt after Ireland beat the All Blacks to congratulate him, and told him that he may have been the only unhappy Irish person in the world because Italy faced New Zealand a week later. The All Blacks won 68-10. In the same way he’s assuredly none too happy about Scotland beating Ireland last week, and his respect for Schmidt remains undimmed.
“He’s an incredible man, forget coach,” added O’Shea in reference to his counterpart, “and I think that’s what inspires people. He’s up front, he’s himself, he’s passionate, he’s enthusiastic and I think he’s a pretty unique individual, and when he re-signed I was so happy. It would have been an absolute disaster to lose him. I think we’re very lucky as a country to have him.”
History has also shown that Italy are generally more competitive in the earlier rounds. Ireland’s winning margin over the course of 10 Six Nations meetings in February is 17 points, whereas in March that average winning margin rises to 30.
In a classy touch, the Ireland squad arrived into Rome’s DaVinci airport on Thursday evening to be met by a classical quartet playing Ireland’s Call, and the thousands of fans seeing the sights of the Eternal City on Friday did so in glorious sunshine and temperatures that touched 18 degrees.
More of the same is forecast for Saturday and, allowing for the doubts about their captain, having brooded all week Ireland should be set fair to re-launch their campaign. For all last weekend’s disappointment, the two games did highlight that while their tries were hard work, Ireland had more ball-carrying ballast and, eventually, penetration about them.
ITALY: Edoardo Padovani; Angelo Esposito, Tommaso Benvenuti, Luke McLean, Giovanbattista Venditti; Carlo Canna, Edoardo Gori; Sergio Parisse, Simone Favaro, Maxime Mbanda; Andries Van Schalkwyk, Marco Fuser; Lorenzo Cittadini, Leonardo Ghiraldini, Andrea Lovotti.
Replacements: Ornel Gega, Sami Panico, Dario Chistolini, George Biagi, Abraham Steyn, Giorgio Bronzini, Tommaso Allan, Michele Campagnaro.
IRELAND: Rob Kearney; Keith Earls, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, Simon Zebo; Paddy Jackson, Conor Murray; Cian Healy, Rory Best (capt), Tadhg Furlong; Donnacha Ryan, Devin Toner; CJ Stander, Sean O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip.
Replacements: Niall Scannell, Jack McGrath, John Ryan, Ultane Dillane, Josh van der Flier, Kieran Marmion, Ian Keatley, Craig Gilroy.
Referee: Glen Jackson (NZRU)
Overall head-to-head: Played 26, Italy 4 wins, Ireland 22 wins.
Last five meetings: (2016) Ireland 58 Italy 15. (2015) Ireland 16 Italy 9 (RWC). Italy 3 Ireland 26. (2014) Ireland 46 Italy 7. (2013) Italy 22 Ireland 15.
Betting (Paddy Powers): 11/1 Italy, 45/1 Draw, 1/20. Handicap odds (Italy +23) Evens Italy, 22/1 Draw, Evens Ireland.
Forecast: Ireland to win.