Ireland need to improve running game to avoid banana skin in Rome
Seán O’Brien will help with the forwards’ ball carrying but he cannot be alone
Seán O’Brien emerges at Stadio Olimpico in Rome for the captain’s run. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
Deeply rooted in human nature is a reaction that empowers the ‘underdog’ to rise up and strike down their so-called betters.
The stories of ancient civilization are littered with the histories of how the small defeated the giant.
David’s defiant courage empowered his sling to strike a lucky blow that felled Goliath.
Let’s face it, when a little bloke takes on a big bloke, the little fella needs a slice of luck.
Hannibal drove his elephants across the Italian Alps and attacked the might of Rome at its heart.
When Hannibal’s generals questioned the sanity of his strategy, he answered with words that resound through the ages. “We will find a way, or make one.” Hannibal was one determined underdog’.
Jamie Heaslip, Andrew Trimble, Cian Healy, Dave Kearney and most importantly Johnny Sexton are missing. The entire Irish three-quarter line will play their first Six Nations match away from home. That is a very different experience to playing in the bosom of Irish love at Lansdowne Road.
Ireland will look to Ian Keatley with hope and best wishes, but also with a warranted parcel of doubt. He is untested at Six Nations level. The backline he will command is a combination of all four provinces and has never played together as a unit.
The Rome encounter will be not only a test of skill, ability and tactics. It will be an examination of the character of each individual and the team as a collective.
The Stadio Olimpico in Rome will be jammed with 70,000 passionate Italians.
These Italian supporters revere the remarkable Italian captain, Sergio Parisse. For a decade his efforts have inspired the entire Italian rugby community.
Parisse is a wise campaigner. He knows Italy have the chance of an upset. He has witnessed the growth of support for the Italian national team to a point that he could not have imagined at the beginning of his career. He understands the Italian supporters now have knowledge, expectation and ambition.
For the Irish Six Nations fans, well, Rome is their favourite away destination. The Irish can watch their team play, give their beloved partner a romantic weekend in the Eternal city – well, that’s what he told her – pick up Mass with the Pope and return to Ireland with more brownie points than when they left. That is truly a unique rugby experience.
Ireland’s performances in the November internationals were highly encouraging, but not perfect.
It was with the ball in hand that the Irish team faltered. The inability of the Irish forward runners to cross the gain line and the lack of penetration by the backs was masked by the joy of winning.
I reject the excuses that the poor attack was about style or tactics. Ireland’s ball-in-had running game was technically poor and it will need to improve markedly to win the Six Nations or to have an impact at the World Cup.
No doubt the return of Seán O’Brien will help with the forwards’ ball carrying but he cannot be alone. While the lineout and maul performed brilliantly, Italy have proved that this is also an area of strength for them.
Ireland must put Italy under pressure with a quality running game.
Italy have a physical defence and Ireland have not displayed a creative attacking structure. This is what gives Italy hope.
Ireland must hold their nerve, as a win without Sexton, will give a major injection of self-belief and confidence into the team. It will also empower Ian Keatley, in his steady development as an international player.
To win the Six Nations or World Cup, Ireland have to do one thing. Focus on the next game. Perform your team’s systems to your best. Keep your thoughts clear so you can perform well in the next minute of the match. Play the next minute, 80 times, every match.
Do this and you will get the process right. Get the process right and at full time the scoreboard will be in your favour.
Ireland must deal with Italy before they look at France. Regrettably, I have the feeling that many selection decisions were made with an eye on the French match. I hope the talk of planning for France does come back to punish Ireland this weekend.
The world expects Ireland to win and that is a heavy burden for the inexperienced Irish three quarters to carry.
Ireland can win, but it will not be easy. If Italy have the determination of Hannibal in defence, the courage of David at set play and the luck of getting the 50-50 calls from the referee at the breakdown, Italy can cause an upset.
If Ireland fail to get their running game in action, Italy will grow in confidence and the score at full time will be closer than many predict.