Ireland, to some, maybe on a hiding to nothing in Rome as they seek out a belated first victory of the 2021 Guinness Six Nations against a side whose quest for long-awaited championship success is measured in years rather than matches.
While to many this represents a no-win situation for Andy Farrell and Ireland with little upside in beating an Italy side that has extended its losing streak in the championship to 29 consecutive matches with the concession of 91 points in the opening two rounds, this does also offer an opportunity against a porous defence to rediscover an attacking cutting edge that has been sorely lacking in defeats to both Wales and France.
“It’s been frustrating more than anything,” forwards coach Paul O’Connell said this week.
“We’re doing an awful lot of good and we’re undoing some of that good as well with some of what we’re doing.
“They’ve actually been two quite good performances by and large.
“It’s tough, in the first game we played for 65 minutes with 14 men and produced an awful lot of good play, but probably let Wales off the hook once or twice.
“Against France, we were very close to being 10-0 up and, in the conditions, 10-0 up is a bit of a game-changer.
“It wasn’t particularly dry, it had stopped raining by the time the game had started but it was still a greasy ball and it was going to be a hard game to chase.
“It was just a shame that (disallowed James Lowe) try didn’t go over.
“In fairness to France, they’re in a very good place at the moment. They’ve great athletes and they produced two great tries with a few moments of magic.”
Magic has been in short supply as far as Ireland are concerned. Ireland will step out at Stadio Olimpico following two weeks of intense media scrutiny following their attacking impotence in defeat at home to the French. Just two tries have accrued from their opening 160-plus minutes of championship action while their 29 points is a comfortable fifth-best tally, only one better than the struggling Italians.
Farrell is demanding the discovery of a cutting edge with a call for clinical finishing on Thursday when he named an all-Leinster backline, Jordan Larmour moving off the bench and onto the right wing to replace Keith Earls for his first start there since the summer of 2019.
It was a theme continued by scrum coach John Fogarty in a sunny Rome on Friday when asked by his IRFU interviewer what role the Ireland forwards could play in reaching that objective.
“So much of it has been really good. I guess the last few pieces, which sometimes is a focus thing, which sometimes is a little bit of a detail thing, these are the things during the week that we’ve spoken about as a group, that the players have led in how they’re prepping during the week and finishing off those last pieces.
“So we’d expect to put ourselves in good positions to start with. It’s going to be a battle against Italy, you know, but when we do put ourselves in good positions, have that focus and have that clarity in our heads to just get after it and get it done.”
Ireland supporters will echo that last part — for pity’s sake please lads, just get it done. There has been precious little to cheer from the national team since that annus mirabilis in 2018 under Farrell’s predecessor Joe Schmidt, when the plaudits were not for off-the-cuff inspirational rugby but meticulously-planned and exquisitely executed set plays off set-piece.
The last thing armchair-bound Irish rugby country wants to see on Saturday is their national team continue to misfire, as they did in 2019 when scraping a 26-16 win, or even worse, succumb to a repeat of 2013, when Declan Kidney’s reign as head coach was brought to end in a 22-15 Roman defeat, Ireland’s sole reverse in 21 years of Italy’s involvement in the championship.
Yet the current Irish head coach insists Franco Smith’s young Italy side, pivoted by 19-year-old scrum-half Stephen Varney and 21-year-old fly-half Paolo Garbisi, can pose his team problems and are actually more dangerous than their miserable record and leaky defence suggests from the 50-10 opening loss at home to France and 41-18 Twickenham defeat by England.
“You hear reports and you look at scorelines and you make it out to be something that it completely isn’t,” Farrell said.
“In the French game, the French were very clinical. First game of the competition, Italy tried to show their brand of rugby, their expansive game and France — doing what they do with a good set-piece, good territory and kicking game — tried to hit them on the counter.
“They had quite a few chances and they converted most of them, they were very clinical.
“I thought Italy improved the week after, the English found them tough to break down.
“They’ve got some really dangerous backs. Strong, fast, dangerous backs who like to play in an expansive game and we have to go with the right attitude.
“A couple of years ago, I felt we didn’t get the blend right over there and it came across as sloppy at times. Last year at the Aviva, I thought our attitude was spot on and hopefully we can do the same in Rome on Saturday.”