Ireland v Italy: Rome offers chance for redemption

Joe Schmidt calls up Donnacha Ryan and Cian Healy to starting XV for Italy test

Gerry Thornley and Gavin Cummiskey preview Ireland’s upcoming Six Nations match and how Joe Schmidt's team can get their season back on track after defeat to Scotland. Video: David Dunne

 

The air of inflated optimism inspired by the mother of all Novembers has been deflated in one game, and it will take more than a win over Italy to return to those heady heights.

It will take a home win over France as well, and maybe even another victory away to Wales and, most probably, this says more about the view from outside the Irish squad than within it.

In any event, if last Saturday’s trek to Murrayfield did indeed prove tricky (and the Scots were only four or five point underdogs) then this latest Italian job, for which Ireland are 23-point favourites, is the proverbial, no-win banana skin, even more so now.

“Those expectations are external to us,” said Joe Schmidt after recalling Donnacha Ryan as expected for Iain Henderson, whose hamstring strain has ruled him out of the 23, and also rotating Cian Healy with Jack McGrath and promoting Craig Gilroy at the expense of Tommy Bowe to the bench, as Tiernan O’Halloran unluckily misses out again.

“It’s only four years ago that we lost to Italy so we don’t get too carried away with what expectations people might have, we just have got to make sure that we put together the performance that we can. If you manage to get a win, there is a 24-hour feel-good factor and then you roll your sleeves up and get working again.”

“We probably had a 48-hour slump post-Scotland of feeling frustrated and to be honest a little bit sorry for ourselves, because when we looked at the footage and saw the number of the opportunities that we squandered you do feel a bit sorry for yourself.

“These guys are human like everybody else, it’s a human response but at the same time now there is a determination not to repeat the same mistakes. The feel-good factor comes from just a really good performance and that’s no matter who you’re playing against.”

The Azzurri head coach Conor O’Shea has made four changes, recalling Leonardo Ghiraldini at hooker for Ornel Gega, Andries van Schalkwyk for George Biagi and, as expected, the fit again Simone Favaro coming in for Abraham Steyn in a rejigged back-row, while Angelo Esposito is preferred to Giulio Bisegni on the right wing. Thankfully for Italy, and indeed the match, Sergio Parisse has been passed fit.

Wake-up call

Schmidt cited the heightened “organisation” and “clarity” O’Shea has brought to the Italian team, and said of his assistants: “Mike Catt is really good at exploiting opportunities and he will have seen a few last week that he will be looking to exploit and we’ve got to make sure that we don’t offer those same opportunities. Brendan Venter has brought a real enjoyment of getting off the line and being very offensive defensively.”

Schmidt reckoned the return of the experienced Favaro will add to that given his speed off the line, and noting the way Wales dominated the first 20 minutes last week, added: “To be fair to Italy they didn’t panic, they didn’t try to do things individually, they really tried to work as a group to shut down the Wales threats and did it really well.”

Yet, for much of yesterday’s briefing, the questioning was reflective rather than looking ahead to the Italian game.

“I know one of you guys said we might win the Six Nations but lose our first game; well I hope you are right because I’d love to win the Six Nations and I know the players would and maybe that is the wake-up call.”

“I don’t think there’s anyone who is machine-like enough to have a performance every time that is top-drawer, so unfortunately you might have one or two players who don’t have a great day and the other players get us over the line. We’d a few players who weren’t far off, there wasn’t someone who had a catastrophic performance, but you don’t have to be far off at this grade.”

They are only human, after all.

Schmidt, understandably, refuted the notion that the players owe the coaching staff a performance.

“No. Not at all. They might owe something to themselves. At the same time the coaching staff have a huge amount of confidence in them. They are very, very few times in my three and a half years doing this job that we’ve started sluggishly like that. The last time we were shorn of so much experience and there was a real anxiety then that I understood it more,” he said, clearly in reference to the World Cup quarter-final defeat which also clearly bugs him like no other in his tenure as Irish coach.

Sluggish start

On foot of announcing the team, and in the televised or ‘live’ section of his briefing, Schmidt referred back to the infamously delayed bus ride to Murrayfield when asked how he could ensure against another sluggish start.

Maintaining that it wasn’t apathy, Schmidt ventured that it was “a bit of anxiety at not having the full period to warm up. Players get anxious – they’re very routine based and I do think it’s a challenge for a professional player to be adaptable in different circumstances that they can still cope and still start well.”

It was in that context, i. e. still trying to find the reasons for the slow start and reinforcing where they need to learn the lessons from last week, that Schmidt returned to the issue.

When then asked again about his reasons for returning to the subject at the ensuing newspaper briefing, Schmidt said: “It’s not an excuse but it’s something that’s a good challenge for us. As I said, it’s good to be challenged, even in our preparation, and be adaptable and be to cope with it. There was a question about solutions, one of the solutions for us is to be put in positions where we feel a bit of insecurity and a little bit of pressure and be able to cope. Unless you get put in those positions, unless you’re put out of your routine, you don’t know how you’re going to cope.”

All in all though, perhaps best to park it there once and for all, so to speak.

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