The most dangerous opponent facing Ireland at the Stadio Olimpico today is themselves. It has been one of the most demanding and harrowing Six Nations championships from an Irish perspective that I can recall, with injury and a succession of second-half collapses bedevilling the side from the outset against Wales. The withdrawal of Jonny Sexton within hours of being reinstated in the side on Thursday will not help matters either.
The rugby played in the opening 43 minutes in Cardiff that day was the best produced by any side in the tournament to date, yet it is the Welsh who contest for championship honours today, with Ireland fighting to ensure a French win against Scotland and a first ever defeat in Rome doesn’t consign them to the foot of the table.
I have become extremely wary of Irish performances in the second of back-to-back internationals and the fact that today’s outing is against Italy offers no significant comfort.
Once again Ireland have managed little preparation this week, due to the physical nature of last weekend’s contest against France and the injury fallout that subsequently ensued.
Ireland have had to get up for so many challenges this season that a huge focus for the management this week will have been geared towards getting the side mentally prepared for this challenge.
With over 65,000 supporters roaring on the home side, Stadio Olimpico will pose a far more intimidating cauldron than the Aviva Stadium has provided at any stage lately and that is sure to energise a home side who responded magnificently in similar circumstances in their opener against France.
Captain Jamie Heaslip has a big job on hand today, especially if Italy manage to keep in touch with Ireland up to half-time. Should the Italians manage to get a few points ahead then Ireland could be in serious trouble as their failure to register a single point in the final quarter of any Six Nations game this year is baffling. They are mentally brittle at present and as a consequence need to boss this game right from the outset and kill off any notion of a home victory by half-time. Unfortunately, that could be easier said than done.
Despite the constant change in personnel, with 31 players used in the championship to date and set to expand even further if Paul Marshall, Stephen Archer and Devin Toner are introduced off the bench, Ireland’s defensive effort in this tournament has been magnificent. Anthony Foley deserves immense credit here as he is still learning his trade at this level yet has presided over a heroic defensive effort, despite that constant change in personnel.
Louis Picamole’s try with just six minutes left last weekend was the first conceded since the second-half revival by Wales at the Millennium Stadium, with both England and Scotland held tryless. Italy have struggled somewhat for five pointers in this Championship with just four in total but showed against France and England that with their new-found ability to offload, they do pose a threat. Ireland need to be aware of this and look to wrap up the ball in the tackle.
The Italian defensive effort has also improved under Jacque Brunel, facilitated by taking a risk at the breakdown when committing minimal numbers. With as few as two forwards committed at times, the rest fill the field and look to close the space rapidly with impressive line speed.
This leaves them vulnerable, however, and Ireland must suck their forwards back into the contact area by being direct and carrying straight up the middle with a series of pick and drives. If executed properly Italy will become narrower in defence and Ireland, will have opportunities to punish their hosts out wide. In addition, Luciano Orquera is a non-tackling luxury at out-half whom Brunel attempts to hide in defence by shifting Andrea Masi or Luke McLean into the ten channel to cover his deficiencies. Ireland need to identify the area manned by Orquera in defence and exploit it.
Ireland need to control the game far better than they have managed to over 80 minutes in any of the games so far this season. In all contests they have had massive periods of dominance, more often than not in the opening half, before being forced into a rearguard action in the closing quarter. Under pressure, their discipline has let them down, especially in and around the contact area where needless penalties are been conceded.
Orquera has had a reasonable championship with the boot and Ireland need to recognise that the Italians rely heavily on penalty goals to keep them in touch with most opposition.
The Italians have shown commendable resilience, aptitude and invention this season, even against the likes of New Zealand, Australia against whom Orquera had a penalty kick to draw the game at the death last November, and especially in that magnificent win over the French. Therefore they will prove difficult to break down and above all else, Ireland will need to be patient. It doesn’t help that the ultra-fussy Wayne Barnes is refereeing this one and Heaslip needs to work with him and massage his ego as the game goes on. If the Italians get on his back, which is likely, Ireland need to be in a position to capitalise.
Declan Kidney needs to trust his bench going into the last 20 minutes as the likes of Cian Healy, Rory Best, Mike Ross and Donnacha Ryan have undertaken a huge workload in recent times. Brunel had six of his bench on in Twickenham after 60 minutes and that helped carry the fight to England right to the end.
For their bravery, honesty and never-say-die attitude in the face of massive adversity throughout this tournament, this Irish squad deserve a victory today, but they will have to realise it will necessitate their first 80 minute performance of the championship to achieve that.