Ireland must show their ruthless side when Italy run out of steam

Three challenges for Joe Schmidt facing Ireland against Italy today...

Ireland must show their ruthless side when Italy run out of steam

1. Restore emotional energy

One of the first challenges for the Irish management team this week was to bring the squad back down to earth after the adrenaline-fuelled high that accompanied the amazing, character-driven 41 phases of play that served to keep Irish Grand Slam aspirations alive at the death in Paris.

To deliver such a technically exact passage of play into the 80th minute of the game when both mind and body had been tested to the full will have taken a toll.

The emotional energy alone expended in the sheer outpouring of joy when the final whistle went will make it more difficult to access that again this weekend.

That is one of the reasons why Joe Schmidt was encouraged to alter his starting team against Italy today.

He also availed of the review session of that French game last Monday to issue a reality check by highlighting the many shortcomings in the performance that led to the team being in that position in the first place.

With 68% of both territory and possession, Ireland should never have found themselves in a place where they had to chase the game in the end.

It should never have come to that. Ireland started the game impressively, exposing holes in the French defence in the wide channels when all back three players in Keith Earls, Jacob Stockdale, and Rob Kearney were afforded quality attacking opportunities.

Stockdale was afforded a freedom to roam off his wing and support his midfield backs with some well-screened trailing runs.

That disappeared as the game went on. Why did Ireland appear to lose their shape in attack despite a surfeit of possession? All those issues will have been addressed now and Italy, on a six-day turnaround, are likely to feel the backlash.

2. Refine tactics to make Ireland more efficient

Having highlighted Ireland’s shortcomings in that video review, Schmidt brought the players further back to reality by announcing that there would be four changes to the side for today.

By tweaking a winning side, everyone is immediately put on notice that Schmidt will effect change, regardless of circumstances.

The message is clear: when presented with the chance to start in a green jersey, it is imperative that you nail the technical and tactical aspects of your specific role in the side.

It is somewhat ironic, given how clinical the decision making, the technical aspects surrounding the ball presentation of the carrier, the exactitude of the clean-outs that supported that ball carrier which enabled Ireland build 41 phases of play in challenging conditions at the death, that those attributes were absent for long periods of the game to that point.

The focus all week will have been on addressing those shortcomings and on why Ireland had to wait until a gun was put to the head to execute in such a precise manner.

The message to the players here is that your technique is excellent but your focus and concentration needs to be more sustained.

On the basis that Ireland will be more clinical at the breakdown and the hope that referee Romain Poite will be stricter than Nigel Owens was on policing opposition bodies not rolling away, Ireland’s attacking game, weather permitting, should be more effective. For that to happen they need to take a leaf out of England’s playbook last weekend.

With two pivotal playmakers in George Ford and Owen Farrell,

England constantly created confusion and an element of doubt in the Italian defence with their use of decoys and dummy runners.

Both had the ability, under pressure, to pick the right pass and put a player into a hole.

Johnny Sexton is brilliant at this but when he is tied into a ruck, someone else needs to step up and take that responsibility. That is the advantage in playing Joey Carbery at full-back.

It would also help if Bundee Aki was presented with quicker ball as, not only has he the ability to get over the gain line but the power to free his hands in the tackle and feed the support runner.

At times last week the Italian midfield of Tommaso Castello and especially Tommaso Boni looked at sea defensively and Ireland must exploit that.

With a bigger emphasis on their maul — the Italian lineout is poor — and an ability to tire the opposition through their multi-phase rugby, you just sense that far more space will open up for Ireland to exploit than was available at any stage last weekend in Paris.

If that happens, Italy will be in serious trouble given the cavalry lying in wait on the Irish bench.

3. Exploit tired Italy and secure the bonus

Conor O’Shea had informed his squad in advance of the defeat by England that there would be changes for the Irish match due to the six-day turnaround and the clear necessity for fresh legs.

Given the four alterations up front that Schmidt has made, along with four more on the bench, it is difficult to escape the feeling that O’Shea may not have gone far enough with his three changes.

Then again, he has nothing like the depth in quality available that his opposite number enjoys.

With so much scope for improvement, this starting Irish team have been offered a big chance to punish Italy, improve Ireland’s points differential and, consequently, their chances of starting against Wales.

The addition of the bonus point structure took a bit of time to catch the imagination but, with England and Wales both collecting a four-try bonus point last weekend, the pressure will be on Ireland today to do likewise.

In a deviation from the normal build-up, when players and management typically dismiss talk of going after a bonus point and emphasise the importance of winning the game first, Schmidt has admitted that Ireland will be chasing tries.

“Our intention is to keep scoring points.”

Ireland racked up nine in each of the last two outings against the Azzurri. And Schmidt knows that anything less than a sizable bonus-point win will leave Ireland lagging well behind the winner of today’s big game in Twickenham.

Despite the improvements O’Shea is making on his Italian sojourn, more evident in the improved showings of the two Italian franchises at Zebre and Benetton at present, the old Italian failings in relation to poor discipline, lapses in defence and an inability to stay the pace in the final quarter, were still there for all to see in that opening defeat to England.

That is not to ignore the obvious and encouraging improvements in their attacking play and their ability to threaten in the wide channels as evidenced by two smashing tries from wingers Tomasso Benvenuti and Mattie Bellini against the English last Sunday.

Schmidt has picked an explosive bench, one primed to exploit any drop in tempo or intensity from the visitors over the final 20 minutes.

The power ball-carrying potential of the replacement front row of Cian Healy, Sean Cronin, and Andrew Porter, coupled with CJ Stander, could prove devastating.

That capacity to punish a tiring Italian defence will create fresh opportunities out wide. Last season Craig Gilroy bagged a hat-trick of tries over the closing 13 minutes — as did Stander — after being introduced off the bench in a facile victory.

What odds on a try-scoring debut for new Leinster sensation Jordan Larmour in similar circumstances?

Ireland to win and pick up a bonus point.

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