DONAL LENIHAN: Tougher challenges ahead but Joe show back on the road with rampage in Rome

POWER ON: Ireland's CJ Stander goes over for a try during the RBS 6 Nations clash with Italy in Rome. Picture: Stephen McCarthy

From the moment the final whistle blew in Murrayfield, Ireland’s trip to face Italy took on a different complexion.

No longer a means to an end, it presented the first available opportunity to set the record straight, to erase the bitter stench that still hung in the air after that hugely disappointing defeat to the Scots and a platform to issue a statement for the remainder of the tournament.

The fact that Ireland had the tournament’s first try-scoring bonus-point in the bag by the 32nd minute said everything about their dominance. By that stage, Ireland had already made 222 metres, Italy a paltry 24.

Privately Conor O’Shea would have recognised that the defeat for Ireland in Edinburgh was the last thing his beleaguered players needed after their opening day defeat to Wales.

Already under massive psychological pressure on the back of a horrific season with their Italian club sides, confidence and belief is something in short supply in the Italian camp. Seventeen of their match day squad ply their trade with Zebre or Treviso in the Guinness PRO12.

Between them, they had experienced only three wins from 24 outings in their domestic league. Add in their collective experiences in the European Champions Cup and Challenge Cup and that extends to five wins in 36 games.

If you were asked to pick a side in this championship to refloat the ship after a stinging defeat then the Italians — despite the age-old cliches about the quality of their forwards and the intense physicality they bring to every contest — would be your choice every time.

In the circumstances there could ever only be one outcome to this game.

The first thing Ireland needed to address was the sluggish start made to the game against Scotland. Joe Schmidt expressed the hope when announcing the side on Thursday that that was an anomaly which would not to be repeated. He certainly got his wish with Ireland immediately into their stride right from the kick-off.

On the flip side, O’Shea sought to prove, despite the predictable nature of their performance against Wales, that this was not the same old Italy. Changing the mindset of his players is his immediate goal.

On this evidence he will have his work cut out as the Italians were simply outclassed all over the field in their worst ever Six Nations defeat at home.

While the quality of the opposition has to be taken into consideration, Schmidt will nonetheless be very happy with so many aspects of this performance. Most pleasing was the manner with which Ireland controlled possession and launched their big ball carriers over the gain line.

It makes so much difference when the opposition defensive line is put on the back foot and that is exactly what happened in the opening period.

Ireland brought an intent that was clear from the first penalty awarded in the Italian 22 when captain for the day Jamie Heaslip — leading the side due to the absence through illness of Rory Best — consistently turned down kickable penalties in favour of a set piece platform.

On most occasions, even when down to seven forwards after Donnacha Ryan was yellow carded in a case of mistaken identity for deliberately collapsing a maul, Ireland backed themselves and came up with a try-scoring play.

While the try bonus point catapults Ireland back into championship contention, the nine tries scored will also work wonders for the team’s points differential which will come into play if sides finish up tied on match and bonus points.

On a day of records — a first ever double hat-trick of tries in a Six Nations game, amongst others — Schmidt will also be happy with the composure of his side and the manner with which they coped with losing their captain on the morning of the game.

Niall Scannell had a dream debut, delivering eight perfect deliveries to the lineout and seven carries for a gain of 18 metres. He also made a significant contribution to a dominant scrum and linked well in broken play.

Most impressive of all was his positive demeanour and calm assurance given he was unsure until Saturday morning as to whether or not he would start.

Garry Ringrose was another of the younger brigade to deliver in his most complete performance on the occasion of his fifth cap. After a few defensive hiccups last week, he backed himself in that key discipline, making smart decisions in shooting out of the defensive line on four occasions and was successful in stifling the Italian attack every time.

On the other side of the ball be showed all his poise and balance in beating a number of static Italian defenders when registering a brilliant solo try on the back of a clever switch from Paddy Jackson.

Jackson was another to excel on a day when, in contrast to what transpired in Edinburgh, he and Conor Murray operated seamlessly off a constant supply of quick ball presented on a plate by the forwards.

This enabled Jackson to stand flat and pull the strings either with his excellent range of passing or through the boot.

The Irish back three were the main beneficiaries with Keith Earls and Simon Zebo, in particular, creating havoc for the Italians. Angelo Esposito will have nightmares over his inability to keep Zebo in check even if the Cork man left one gilt-edged try-scoring chance behind him in Rome.

On another day that might prove more costly but not on Saturday as it was clear from the outset that Ireland had the measure of a hapless Italian side that is set for more pummellings over the next few weeks. Their next outing — against England in Twickenham — could get particularly ugly.

Joe Schmidt cut a much happier figure after this outing. The set piece platform offered was vastly improved while the work at the breakdown was far more clinical.

Ireland also offered greater variety in attack with backs and forwards combining seamlessly whether offloading, running dummy lines, or picking the right options to prise open the Italian defence.

Ireland are not where they would like to be, even allowing for having to open the campaign with back to back away games, but this bonus point win keeps them in contention for ultimate honours.

It is difficult to decide at this stage whether that last-gasp England win over Wales is better for Ireland’s championship aspirations, given that Eddie Jones and company travel to Dublin on the last day of action. That said, Ireland will still have to go to Cardiff and win. That won’t be easy based on Wales’ brave performance on Saturday.

In any event, the competition shifts up a gear now for Ireland with three hugely challenging games left to play, with an improving French side next up in Dublin.

With Johnny Sexton, Peter O’Mahony, and Andrew Trimble all likely to be fit and available for selection, Schmidt is back facing the type of selection headaches all coaches prefer to have.


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