It is not clear whether tomorrow’s mission to atone for defeat in Scotland has included a detailed analysis of Rome’s traffic management systems but Ireland’s players have certainly left Joe Schmidt in no doubt they are ready to make amends.
Whatever about the late arrival of the team bus to Murrayfield last Saturday on the opening day of the 2017 RBS 6 Nations, the entirely avoidable 27-22 defeat which followed has prompted an angry and frustrated week in the Irish camp which head coach Schmidt is banking on being translated into a ferocious performance against Italy tomorrow at Stadio Olimpico.
Ireland flew to the Italian capital last night in determined mood to right the wrongs perpetrated in Edinburgh, when the Scots ruthlessly exploited a desperate start by the visitors by scoring three tries in the first 28 minutes and then, having seen the men in green recover from 21-8 to a 22-21 lead, saw Schmidt’s side hand them victory with the concession of silly penalties in a sloppy final 10 minutes.
“We’re angry with ourselves,” Conor Murray said yesterday after Schmidt named him once again at scrum-half for this weekend’s second round clash. “We all know that, and we want to put that right as a group.
“The coaches offer us everything in terms of getting ready for the game, but as a group of players it’s our team and we want to put it right. We slipped up last weekend and we want to keep ourselves in the frame for the championship, and that starts with a big performance this weekend.”
With the aim of securing that big performance in Rome, Schmidt yesterday made two changes from the side he sent out against Scotland, introducing Donnacha Ryan at lock alongside Devin Toner to reunite the second row which proved so effective during the November Tests and rotating Cian Healy from the bench into the No. 1 jersey with regular loosehead starter Jack McGrath swapping places.
A further change sees Craig Gilroy promoted to the replacements at the expense of fellow Ulster outside back Tommy Bowe.
Ryan’s inclusion, having travelled to Scotland last weekend as Ireland’s 24th man, comes at the expense of Iain Henderson, whom Schmidt said was experiencing a slight hamstring strain, in an effort to bolster a misfiring lineout at Murrayfield with a “tactician and technician” in the position.
But, otherwise, the transformation Schmidt expects is set to come in the form of an attitude adjustment.
“I am 100% confident they will endeavour to put it right,” Schmidt said of his players. “Circumstances in the game you can never foretell. That’s the beauty of sport, isn’t it? You can never foretell what the circumstances are going to be like if something happens early in the game and a decision goes against us or we’re on the back foot, we have to cope. But if we’re on the back foot I still think we’re going to cope better than we did last week as a collective and find the solutions, because some of the scores we allowed Scotland to get we’re really disappointed with.”
Asked whether he and his backroom team were owed a performance from their players, Schmidt replied: “No. Not at all. As Conor said, they might owe something to themselves. As I just explained, it’s their team. They want to make sure that they deliver, and they know that they have an opportunity and a responsibility to do that this weekend.
“At the same time, the coaching staff have a huge amount of confidence in them. They are very, very few times in my three and a half years doing this job that we’ve started sluggishly like that. The last time (against Argentina in the 2015 World Cup quarter-final) we were shorn of so much experience and there was a real anxiety.
“I’d hope last weekend is an anomaly and that this weekend we get back to being accurate from the start and probably demonstrate the ability to be on the front foot from the start because we certainly weren’t last week.”
With out-half Johnny Sexton still struggling with a calf strain and flanker Peter O’Mahony continuing to recover from a hamstring strain, Schmidt has retained his half-back pairing of Murray and Paddy Jackson as well as the back row of CJ Stander, Seán O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip while also keeping the status quo in midfield and back three having absolved last week’s players of nothing worse than a few of them other being “not far off” what was needed to succeed.
Time has healed the disappointment, if not the frustration, and lessons have been learned.
“I don’t think it’s ever the worst thing,” Schmidt said, “it just feels like the worse thing at the time. I know one of the media said we might win the Six Nations but lose our first game. Well I hope you are right because I’d love to win the Six Nations and I know the players would and maybe that is the wake-up call.”
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