Real pressure on Ireland to deliver a victory over Italy
Six Nations: Joe Schmidt’s men need to end a frustrating sequence of results
Robbie Henshaw passes to Keith Earls during the Pool D World Cup clash at the Olympic Stadium. Photograph: Matrin Bureau/AFP/Getty Images)
The bald statistics show that Ireland’s hitherto slightly impotent attack – just two tries scored – comes up against the Six Nations’ most porous defence, who have conceded 11 tries. Opportunity knocks.
The early kick-off compounds the anti-climactic nature of this contest, but at least the forecast is set fair, with dry, sunny weather and a high of 14 degrees.
Yet as Italy reminded all and sundry in the World Cup pool meeting at the Olympic Stadium, if they are not put away handsomely, they can drag you into an unseemly arm wrestle; and it’s usually been one or the other, with little in between, when these two have met.
All things considered then, the nature of this game makes it the biggest test of the team’s accuracy and professionalism to date.
More so for this game than most, to a large degree the Irish performance will dictate the atmosphere rather than the other way around.
“It’s massive playing here,” said Rory Best after their captain’s run at the Aviva yesterday.
“It’s where you want to play. In front of the home supporters, it’s a great crowd even going back to when I first started playing here in the old Lansdowne Road. Ultimately, the atmosphere, it’s a bit of the chicken and the egg, the crowd will come here expecting a performance from us and if we can deliver that early on, regardless of the scoreline, the crowd will get behind us.
“If we struggle a bit then the crowd will start to get edgy and that feeds down onto us. The support here is always great but we also have to give them something to feed on as well.”
On the eve of his 50th Six Nations match, the captain is feeling the pressure to deliver a performance and a first win since he assumed the mantle full-time from Paul O’Connell as acutely as anyone.
Understandably, Best declined to draw any comparisons with the 2013 championship, when Ireland suffered their only championship defeat to Italy.
“You can draw parallels all you want but it’s a different squad it’s a different set-up, it’s everything’s different about it,” he said, maintaining that Ireland are in a good place, and adding: “We’re at home now, it’s not about looking back it’s about glancing back at the previous game or two or three games to make sure that we’re better going forward.”
Finlay Bealham’s elevation to the Irish replacements’ bench yesterday due to the unfortunate Cian Healy’s hamstring strain creates the possibility of a fourth Irish debutant in two games, thereby taking to 22 debutants amongst the 67 players used by Joe Schmidt in his 31-match reign to date.
It also means there will be three Corinthians players on the Irish bench, all of them products of the Connacht set-up, albeit as an Australian-born and reared prop who first landed in Irish rugby with Ulster, the 24-year-old Bealham adds to their quixotic nature. Kieran Marmion was born in England and reared in Wales, while Ultan Dillane was born in Paris and reared in Kerry.
Perhaps they’ll bring a certain Corinthian spirit, although one ventures that baring injury, the timing of Bealham’s putative debut will be a good barometer of how well or otherwise Ireland are going.
Although deemed a loose-head and tight-head, Bealham is covering Jack McGrath and put another way, unless Ireland are going well entering the last quarter or so, McGrath could be in for another long shift after his 80 minutes against Wales and 76 minutes six days later in Paris.
With Edoardo Gori (fractured rib) also ruled out, the 24-year-old Guglielmo Palazanni will now partner his 22-year-old Zebre teammate Edoardo Padovani in his first test start after two caps off the bench.
Nor in the beginning of these post-Martin Castrogiovanni days, does their scrum appear quite as potent as of yore, while they rely less on their strangulating one-off runners, and recycling game.
That said, as well as Palazanni’s sniping and the running threat out wide of Michele Campagnaro, Joe Schmidt paid due and proper respect to their potent and experienced back-row of Francesco Minto, Alessandro Zanni and, of course, Sergio Parisse.
Like all Italian teams, the longer they are in the contest the tougher they will become to crack, whereas the quicker they are disabused of any notion of a win, the more likely their heads might be to drop.
Yet though they occupy last place again, Italy played some fine running rugby in Paris on the opening weekend and were even unluckier than Ireland a week later not to beat Guy Noves’ remodelled side.
They were very competitive against England for 50 minutes before shooting themselves in the foot, and despite falling 14-3 behind early on to Scotland, far from wilting they came back into the game and were within a score of a famous comeback with 15 minutes to go before a late Tommy Seymour try gave a misleading hue to the 36-20 final scoreline.
But this is more about Ireland.
Mindful of that, what Scotland and England especially showed, is that offloads and good support lines can penetrate the Italian blue line more readily than most. Ireland have shown an ability to make line breaks, create openings and earn attacking set-piece platforms.
With better support play for the former, and more accuracy with the latter, the tries that have been eluding them and could see the confidence flood back into their veins, may not be far away.