Where has that Ireland swagger gone?

Ireland were offered every incentive in Rome to get their Six Nations title aspirations back on track as they watched Wales beat England from their hotel base on the eve of this game.

Where has that Ireland swagger gone?

Ireland were offered every incentive in Rome to get their Six Nations title aspirations back on track as they watched Wales beat England from their hotel base on the eve of this game.

A bonus-point win over the Azzurri on a beautifully crisp afternoon would close the gap at the top of the table to just three points. While Conor Murray’s try on 67 minutes delivered that outcome, little else in an otherwise disappointing performance will fill Joe Schmidt with much joy.

Perhaps we have come to expect too much from Ireland, but when you beat the world champions and maintain your seeding as the second best side in the game, then you do come to expect a more cohesive and polished performance than this.

Much credit must go to an Italian side who carried the fight to Ireland all day but continue to make too many errors at crucial times. One such error arrived from a restart when a calamity of errors between Dean Budd and Michele Campagnaro offered the outstanding Jacob Stockdale a sniff of a chance which he duly converted into a try.

Stockdale and Keith Earls provided the vital X-Factor and touches of class on a day when Ireland were stressed and forced into error on far too many occasions for Schmidt’s liking. Losing Bundee Aki after only 11 minutes didn’t help with yet another new midfield combination of Chris Farrell and Earls thrown together. The irony was that Farrell and Aki both had good early touches with their energy and raw power causing problems for the Italians. They looked as if they could inflict some serious damage.

Almost unnoticed, Ireland’s teamsheet has been altered appreciably, with only seven of the team that started against the All Blacks last November still in situ for this one. If Schmidt wanted to test his strength in depth then he was set to learn a lot from this combination.

Ireland’s forward unit was significantly understrength, with five front liners either rested or injured in Cian Healy, regular captain Rory Best, the first-choice second-row combination of Devin Toner and James Ryan along with the injury-enforced absence of CJ Stander.

In addition, Ireland started with their third choice No 8 in Jordi Murphy after Jack Conan was also ruled out on Wednesday. In effect, Ireland started their fifth and sixth choice locks in Quinn Roux and Ultan Dillane, with Iain Henderson and Tadhg Beirne also held in reserve. In trying circumstances, Roux and Dillane were two of Ireland’s busier and more industrious performers along with Peter O’Mahony who played a real captain’s part with a typically committed and effective performance in another man of the match showing.

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt during the closing stages of the game. If he wanted to test his strength in depth then he was set to learn a lot from yesterday’s combination. Pictures: Brendan Moran and Dan Sheridan
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt during the closing stages of the game. If he wanted to test his strength in depth then he was set to learn a lot from yesterday’s combination. Pictures: Brendan Moran and Dan Sheridan

After the perfect start with a trademark, multi-phase grinding of a stressed Italian defence that resulted in a well worked try from Roux, Ireland led 12-3 and were halfway towards that four-try bonus. Inexplicably though Ireland then completely lost their way. It didn’t help that the experienced core of the team in Sean O’Brien, Conor Murray, Johnny Sexton and Rob Kearney were struggling to impact the game and were all guilty of unforced errors or poor execution. While Murray will be thrilled with his second try in the last two outings, not to mention two conversions when taking over the kicking duties from Sexton, he was guilty of unforced errors at the base of the maul, one of which led to a spectacular try from Luca Morisi which propelled Italy into an unlikely 16-12 lead at the break.

To start the second half with a Sexton restart that didn’t travel the requisite 10 metres - presenting Italy with a scrum to re-establish field position - would only have served to dilute much of what had been discussed and addressed during the break.

Last year Ireland carried a swagger and confidence into every game that elevated them to new heights. For whatever reason, that confidence seems to have disappeared after the defeat to England. Ireland created numerous chances, with some telling line breaks, but their handling and passing under pressure let them down when scores were there for the taking. Last year, all those passes stuck.

In total, Ireland made 15 handling errors to Italy’s four and that proved crippling.

Picture:©INPHO/James Crombie
Picture:©INPHO/James Crombie

The errors Ireland are making in the opposition ‘22’ is really crippling them given that so many of the points scored

last season stemmed from suffocating the opposition when in that scoring zone. Sean Cronin’s early overthrow from a five-metre line out appeared to rattle his composure after waiting so long for a Six Nations start.

It didn’t help him that he wouldn’t have thrown much to the Connacht pairing of Dillane and Roux with his understanding with Toner and Ryan so much better from their day-to-day interaction at Leinster.

Likewise when Niall Scannell was introduced early in the second half, his telepathic understanding of the type of ball O’Mahony wants at lineout time proved crucial. When all around were losing their heads, O’Mahony had some crucial interventions with two massive turnovers at the breakdown rewarded with penalties and another crucial line out steal when Italy were on a roll.

For Italy the fight for any recognition continues and I could fully understand Conor O’Shea’s post-match frustrations, the majority of which was geared towards New Zealand referee Glen Jackson. It did appear crazy that Kearney’s block on the outstanding Tito Tebaldi wasn’t even referred to the television match official

Graham Hughes, coming as it did at a vital stage of the game.

It has been a funny Six Nations with England, after looking world beaters in Dublin, made to appear distinctly ordinary against a Welsh side completely rejuvenated in the second half in Cardiff. It also highlighted that without two key players in Maro Itoje and Mako Vunipola, the overall effectiveness of the team can beso greatly impaired.

With a number of key forwards to come back into contention against France and the possibility that Tadhg Beirne will finally get an opportunity to bring his specific skillset to bear on the Six Nations stage, then Ireland have the capacity to lift their performance levels significantly. The return to arms of Garry Ringrose will also be welcomed.

Both France and Wales will present a formidable challenge over a six-day period that will set the mood for an Irish side that will then go into hibernation until the World Cup warm-ups in August. That is why those two outings now assume massive importance for Schmidt. He is set for a busy fortnight before the French arrive in Dublin.

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