Ireland will be looking for clinical edge in Rome, says Farrell
Six Nations: After two defeats, the focus is on getting the basics right against the Azzurri
Ryan Baird and Rónán Kelleher at Ireland rugby squad training at the IRFU High Performance Centre in Blanchardstown, Dublin on Wednesday. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Six Nations: Italy v Ireland
Kick-off: 2.15pm, Saturday. Venue: Stadio Olimpico, Rome. How to follow: The Irish Times liveblog will begin at 1.45pm. On TV: Live on Virgin Media One and ITV.
It’s been a long two weeks of postmortems into the second of Ireland’s two defeats in the 2021 Six Nations. Cocooned in a bubble they may be, but the Irish squad will not have been immune to the critical outside noises, especially the critique of their restrictive game plan against France and the team’s decision-making in that game.
While this is nothing like the eye of the storm which Fabien Galthié finds himself in amid heightened attention on the French squad’s adherence to their own bubble in Marcoussis, Andy Farrell is clearly aware of the need for Ireland to find more of a cutting edge against Italy at the Stadio Olimpico on Saturday.
Perhaps tellingly, when asked to outline what he believes Ireland have done well in their two games to date, he was more of a mind to highlight what’s been missing.
“I think there’s been quite a lot right but it all comes down to having a clinical edge at this level, right at the top. Our fight, our want, our will to impose ourselves against the opposition has been top class.
“The clinical edge – the finishing clinical edge – is obviously the missing part of the ingredient for any side that wants to be world class. That’s what we’re striving for and hopefully we can make a jump in that direction this week.”
We need to be a little bit more connected in our attack, our breakdown work has to be ferocious for the quick ball we want
While Ireland have been striving to play with more width under Farrell and attack coach Mike Catt, having created space out wide they failed to exploit it against France, be it by going there fractionally too early or not going there at all.
Farrell knows the execution needs to be sharper while not overlooking the basics either, a point he stressed when citing what he was looking for in the team’s performance. “Respecting the game, respecting the Italians, going over there with the right attitude, the right fight and the right want to play the game as it should be, and having a clinical edge to back that up.”
Finding that clinical edge wasn’t just about decision-making.
“Obviously you’ve got to get your basics right as well, your set-piece again has to be strong, which it has been, and that will give us good front foot ball,” he said after unveiling a side along expected lines, with seven changes in personnel and one positional.
“We need to be a little bit more connected in our attack, our breakdown work has to be ferocious for the quick ball we want. We want to play at the tempo that we want to play at and that just isn’t quick, it’s being able to slow it down and speed it up at the appropriate time.”
Few players have come under scrutiny as much as James Lowe, and Farrell was asked about the winger’s strengths and what he needs to improve.
“James brings something to our side that probably others don’t, a left foot for starters – that’s the obvious one, but a big strong ball-carrying runner who is dynamic taking people on, not just on the edges but down the middle as well.”
“He’s the type of winger who looks to get his hands on the ball and we want that. If you’ve got a winger like that in your game then it certainly helps the forwards out along the way to get you that quick ball that you’re after.
“Having said that, along the way James is getting that bit more continuity now. He’s young as far as international rugby is concerned and I’m sure that there’s a few things in his game that we’ve talked about over the last few weeks that we need to tidy up along the way as well.”
In recalling Johnny Sexton, David Kilcoyne, James Ryan and Will Connors, while promoting Rónán Kelleher, Tadhg Furlong and Jordan Larmour, as well as shifting Tadhg Beirne from lock to blindside, Farrell and co have unveiled a side which features players with particularly happy memories of playing against the Azzurri.
Connors, Jamison Gibson-Park and Hugo Keenan all made their debuts in last October’s rearranged Six Nations win in the Aviva Stadium, when Keenan scored two tries and Connors one, while Johnny Sexton scored a try in an 18-point haul.
Larmour scored a hat-trick in the victory over the Azzurri in Chicago in November 2018, when Beirne scored two tries on his first Test start, while in the Six Nations win in Rome four years ago CJ Stander (who also scored against them last October) touched down three times. Garry Ringrose (one) and Keith Earls (two) also scored that day when, of course, Craig Gilroy scored a hat-trick off the bench as well, only never to be seen in a green jersey again.
While all those try-scoring exploits look like good omens, perhaps most significantly the ballast of Kilcoyne, Kelleher (making his full Six Nations debut) and Furlong suggests Ireland should have the ball-carrying ability to win the gain line, as well as a strong frontrow to finish the game.
The inclusion of two uncapped players on the bench in Ryan Baird and Craig Casey should also infuse the team with some youthful energy.
However, in many ways, Ireland are in a no-win position. Beat Italy well and the verdict will be “it’s only Italy”. Don’t beat Italy handsomely and it will be said “they couldn’t even beat Italy well”.
“Well, I suppose from the outside there’s always going to be that,” said Farrell with a rueful smile. “But like I keep on saying internally all that matters for us is making sure that we put in a performance that we’re proud of.”