The opportunity to get this Six Nations campaign back on track against Italy at home today (1.30pm) rather than the French in their own back yard a fortnight ago should be a great relief to Ireland.
Yesterday’s announcement that Smal will take no further part in the campaign due to the recurrence of a long-standing eye condition is an unfortunate disruption, not least to the man himself, but having worked closely with pack leader Paul O’Connell since 2008, a temporary absence is not the catastrophe for Ireland it might have been, Greg Feek is still in situ as scrum coach and the South African’s short-term replacement, Anthony Foley, is hardly an unfamiliar face in Irish rugby.
And for all the genuine and understandable ire caused by the unplayable surface at Stade de France and the shenanigans that followed regarding a new date for the fixture, the February 11 postponement has bought everyone in the Ireland camp some valuable time.
Rather than face the World Cup runners-up six days after a demoralising defeat to Wales at the Aviva Stadium, Declan Kidney’s side can now look forward to facing a team against whom they have never lost in this competition and in Dublin, to boot.
Italy are no longer the mugs of the competition and will be no pushovers. They showed Ireland that in Rome last year when it needed a Ronan O’Gara drop goal to settle the issue at the death to save Kidney’s blushes and there was a reminder two weeks ago when England would have been beaten in the Italian capital but for some atrocious place-kicking from the Azzurri’s reserve fly-half Tobias Botes.
Yet for all the threats Italy under new coach Jacques Brunel will pose Ireland, this fixture represents an altogether much better chance to get back on the winning trail than trying to forge a rare victory in Paris would have done.
Furthermore, Italy have been further undone by a rib injury to venerable tighthead prop Martin Castrogiovanni and his fellow front-row warhorse Andrea Lo Cicero is another absentee this afternoon. Add Brunel’s chief concern upon inheriting this squad from Nick Mallett, the continued absence of a dependable fly-half, and the feeling that the Italians had staked its entire campaign on getting a first win over a vulnerable England at a sold-out Stadio Olimpico a fortnight ago, and you can see why this is a great opportunity not only for Ireland to get a first win since defeating the same side at the World Cup last October 2 but also to score just a fourth Test victory in 10 games at the new Aviva.
That 36-6 victory in the final pool game in Dunedin was as complete a performance as Ireland have managed since ending England’s Grand Slam hopes in Dublin last March but there have followed two defeats to Wales, both of which raised several causes for concern.
Whatever the way Ireland’s World Cup dreams fizzled out in that lacklustre quarter-final display, this year’s Six Nations opener was a narrow yet deserved win for the Welsh against a disjointed Ireland.
Kidney has stuck with the same players and they need to eradicate the problems they experienced at the breakdown, address the errors that led to a woeful lack of possession and quickly find a rhythm and tempo that will be good enough not just to beat the Italians but give them some momentum ahead of the return visit to France tomorrow week.
Head coach Kidney has understandably not dwelt on Italy’s fly-half woes, instead hammered home the mantra that carelessness in dangerous areas will cost his team dearly, as it did against Wales, when Leigh Halfpenny grabbed victory with his late penalty following the controversial Stephen Ferris tackle on Ian Evans.
Give Botes, who missed two late penalties against England, enough chances and even he and the dropped Kris Burton, relegated to the bench, will punish you.
“If you give away penalties inside your own half you know it’s going to cost you three points,” Kidney said. “We’ve experienced that before to our detriment and we just have to make sure that we don’t, one – maybe allow them to camp in our half and put pressure on us to give away penalties; or two – that we’re disciplined enough not to give away penalties. So we don’t give way the silly ones. If we get both those things right then you take that out play. But we do know he’s a good place-kicker but every side in the competition has good place-kickers.”
Rather than concentrating on how not to gift the visitors points, the main point of interest will be on how well Ireland get their go-forward going. The familiar opening-day pattern of dropped balls and missed passes should be behind them and the back three of Rob Kearney, Tommy Bowe and Andrew Trimble is poised to both attack and counter-attack with Keith Earls straining at the leash to take his opportunity at outside centre after missing the opener for family reasons.
Italy, to quote the rugby players’ big book of clichés, will make Ireland earn the right to go wide, however, and that will take time, patience and discipline if Brunel’s side are on their game. That means on top of the solid platform from set-piece play that was evident against Wales, better accuracy at the breakdown, and more assured game management at out-half than was on display three weekends ago.
All that added time has to have bought Ireland something and we should expect them to right some wrongs this afternoon.