Victory over Italy in Six Nations vital for restoring self-belief
Doubts over Rob Kearney though Josh van der Flier and Ultan Dillane likely to feature
Ireland scrum coach Greg Feek: “We try to make sure that we’re not throwing someone out there for the sake of it.” Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
The fourth weekend of the RBS Six Nations finds Ireland hosting Italy on Saturday as the only two countries without a win to date and thus occupying the bottom two rungs of the ladder. It wasn’t meant to be like this.
Yet amid the ensuing clarion calls for changes in personnel and blooding new players given the title is beyond reach, Ireland are not so much in must-win territory as anything less than a ninth Six Nations home win out of nine against the Azzurri would be seen as disastrous.
At face value therefore, Ireland appear to be on a hiding to nothing, but according to scrum coach Greg Feek they cannot allow themselves to think like that or be influenced by outside expectations.
“We want to win – we don’t expect ourselves to win,” he said, citing a key difference. “And we’ve got the work ethic and the attitude at the moment to try and prove to ourselves and to earn it. That’s in the forefront of our minds and I’d say that bit of nervousness has already started at training and it will keep building for the rest of the week; that good nervous energy where you have got that anticipation.”
Yet the notion of, say, giving Tadhg Furlong more game time this week has been resisted. “I think experience, and building experience and winning games, you’ve got to take all that into account, and what’s right for this part of the game and what’s right for that part of the game, and who’s got the best balance,” said Feek.
“We try to make sure that we’re not throwing someone out there for the sake of it either, and there has to be a degree of them earning it. And sometimes if you get a taste and then you’re put back in your box for a bit, it makes you hungrier too. But we always choose a team that’s best for that week.”
That Mike Ross is now 36 and Nathan White 34 might seem a concern, but not to Feek. “It would be if they were running around like that. These days, the age factor’s one thing but performance is the other. These two have been together since the World Cup, we’ve invested in them for this season, while other guys have been in with us,” he said.
Maintaining that it takes “three years or so” to develop a test prop, Feek said the cupboard was not necessarily as bare as it might seem.
“Tadhg’s still going really well. Finlay [Bealham] has come in and covered both sides and I think he’s going pretty well as well.” Also citing the currently injured Marty Moore, Wiehahn Herbst (in the second of a three-year contract at Ulster) and Stephen Archer, along with the emergence of loose-heads Denis Buckley and Peter Dooley, Feek said: “One day you can think there’s not much coming through, then you can wake up in the morning and there’s a whole lot ready to go.”
“Those sort of things they need to be harder on, just getting the basic stuff at the start of the scrum right in certain areas,” he said.
Whatever about the front-row, the expectation is that Josh van der Flier will be retained to earn his first Test cap at home after growing into his debut at Twickenham so impressively, while Ultan Dillane’s non-release for Connacht’s win in Edinburgh last weekend suggests he will be involved again.
Whether or not the Stuart McCloskey-Robbie Henshaw combination will be retained is complicated by the availability of the fit-again Jared Payne, and in turn the question marks hanging over Rob Kearney’s fitness. More like his authoritative self in Twickenham, Kearney (like Eoin Reddan) didn’t train at the squad’s base in the Carton House yesterday due to lower back/hamstring issues.
Given this has been a recurring problem for the Irish fullback this raises the possibility of either Payne or Simon Zebo starting at fullback against Italy but – surprise, surprise – the precise extent of Kearney’s injury remains vague.
When it was suggested there must be concerns about Kearney’s latest hamstring problems, Feek said light-heartedly: “It’s kind of like having kids, you always worry about them – backs. You always worry about your backs, you know what I mean? That never stops. But I don’t want to throw out random comments about Rob himself. Hopefully we’ll find out exactly what’s going on on Thursday with him.”