Schmidt: We wouldn't have coped with England

Joe Schmidt knows his Ireland side has plenty of work to do if they are to match England's opening-night power show in Wales and make a successful RBS 6 Nations title defence over the next six weeks.

Schmidt: We wouldn't have coped with England

By Simon Lewis

Joe Schmidt knows his Ireland side has plenty of work to do if they are to match England's opening-night power show in Wales and make a successful RBS 6 Nations title defence over the next six weeks.

The reigning champions made a winning yet unconvincing start to their 2015 campaign in Rome today, a two-try burst during a second-half Italian sin-binning making the score more comfortable than their performance warranted.

And having watched the English lay down a marker to their rivals as they overpowered Wales in Cardiff on Friday night, Irish head coach Schmidt believes his side were “20 to 30 per cent off" the level of performance delivered by Stuart Lancaster's side.

“I don’t think we would have lived with them last night,” Schmidt said.

“I thought Wales were pretty good so for us we certainly need to up our game. I do think part of it was the pressure Italy put on us but I know we can do better than that and we are going to have to.”

Two years ago the Stadio Olimpico had throbbed with passion and excitement as Italy completed an historic first championship victory over a shambolic Ireland that would lead to the exit of head coach Declan Kidney.

Today, the same arena was a subdued place as the Azzurri stuttered and Ireland did just enough to stay ahead in front of 57,700 supporters.

There had been a late change to the Ireland starting line-up when Sean O'Brien was withdrawn on the brink of his first Test appearance in 15 months, his comeback from shoulder reconstruction sugery stymied by a hamstring tweaked during the pre-game warm-up.

The Lions back-rower willhave a scan on the hamstring when the team returns to Dublin on Sunday but Schmidt said he was confident O'Brien would be available for selection against France at the Aviva Stadium next Saturday.

O'Brien's late withdrawal meant Tommy O'Donnell was promoted from the bench with 24th man Robbie Diack coming into the squad as a replacement. It could have disrupted Joe Schmidt's side but Ireland's problems were more widespread than that, their error-strewn play during a poor-quality first half rescued by an even worse performance from Italy

Irish dominance at both scrum and lineout and Italian indiscipline at the breakdown was giving Ireland the edge, allowing Ian Keatley to settle his nerves on his first Six Nations start to kick Ireland into a 9-3 half-time lead.

Yet the Munster fly-half, given the nod over Leinster's Ian Madigan to deputise for the absent Johnny Sexton, was having some anxious moments, some less than pinpoint tactical kicking, a charged down kick and a forward pass underlining the general theme in Ireland's early play.

His three first-half penalties saw both him and Ireland get up and running, Keatley enjoying a perfect afternoon off the tee with four penalties and a conversion before making way for Madigan with 15 minutes to go.

Kelly Haimona's penalty for Italy brought the first half to an end with Ireland going into the interval with a 9-3 lead and while the visitors continued to boss the game, they had only a further Keatley penalty on 57 minutes to show for all their territory and possession until Italy were reduced to 14 men six minutes later.

Hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini's yellow card for coming in at the side of a maul as the Irish pack rumbled towards the line was the turning point and Ireland promptly pounced to kill the game off with two converted tries in the next four minutes.

Scrum-half Conor Murray grabbed the first, diving over and using his strengh against two tacklers to ground the ball before O'Donnell made his mark, the newly-introduced Madigan feeding the flanker a short pass before the Munster forward easily rounded a tiring Martin Castrogiovanni, evaded a tackle from Andrea Masi and fended off Leonardo Sarto to gallop home from 35 metres out.

It was enough to get the job done, Italy's misery compounded when TMO Graham Hughes ended their late rally by disallowing an Haimona try at the death having ruled captain Sergio Parisse to have knocked on earlier in the movement.

A scrappy end to an often disjointed game and Schmidt said: “It’s hard to pick up where we left off two months after. We had six of the starting XV as we had this time last year so that in itself presents a challenge.

“I think the game went how a number of us expected it would; a little disjointed at the start exacerbated by Sean not be available, there was a kick that went straight to hand, a charge down, an early forward pass, we had a bit of space on the edge and we put the ball down so we didn’t help ourselves. But at the same time we got into good field position where the Italian defence was very physical and difficult to break down.”

ITALY: A Masi (G Venditti, 76); L Sarto, M Campagnaro (T Allan, 63), L Morisi, L McLean; K Haimona, E Gori; M Aguero (A De Marchi, 52), L Ghiraldini (F Minto, 73), M Castrogiovanni (D Chistolini, 68); J Furno, G Biagi (M Barbini, 74); A Zanni (M Barbini, 46, M Fuser, 67), F Minto (A Manici, 68), S Parisse.

Yellow card: Ghiraldini 63-73

Replacement not used: G Palazzani.

IRELAND: R Kearney; T Bowe, J Payne (F Jones, 68), R Henshaw, S Zebo; I Keatley (I Madigan, 65), C Murray (I Boss, 68); J McGrath (J Cronin, 68), R Best (S Cronin, 46), M Ross (M Moore, 51); P O'Connell, D Toner; P O'Mahony (I Henderson, 65), T O'Donnell, J Murphy.

Replacement not used: R Diack

Referee: Pascal Gauzere (France)

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