Italians sense our physical fragility

Tomorrow’s Rome result may not quality as do-or-die to the casual observer, but what happens over 80 minutes in the Olympic Stadium will have long-term repercussions for the management, players and IRFU as a whole.

There is a significant drop in prize money for each position in the Six Nations and as Lansdowne Road battles to fight off interest from France and further afield in our top players, an extra million euro can come in handy.

Ireland can finish either third or sixth depending on our result and the scoreline in the France-Scotland match. Given the injuries Declan Kidney has had to deal with, third place would be no bad achievement.

I couldn’t help but feel that despite a big push to get people into their seats early and a very vocal French crowd in the Aviva last weekend, that the atmosphere was a bit dead. The IRFU are now competing with themselves as the provinces have such a loyal following. However the national team is the cash cow that funds the rest of the operation.

Modern elite rugby is decided by winning collisions and without players like Paul O’Connell, Stephen Ferris and Tommy Bowe, Ireland has been consistently knocked back trying to get over the gain line this spring.

Once you lose this battle, the speed of ruck ball generally becomes so slow that getting fast ball or a gain line in the subsequent phase is nearly impossible. When we generated that fast ball in the first 20 minutes against Wales we were able to create and finish chances.

But since then the poor weather against England and France made that lack of power even more of a factor; in such conditions, it’s very hard to throw more than two passes in any phase which allows the defence to stand closer together and makes to harder to find a “soft shoulder” to run at.

This may be Declan Kidney’s last match in charge of Ireland and it’s a testament to the respect he has amongst the squad that there’s been no reports (either on or off the record) of player unrest under his tenure — even when results haven’t been as favourable as we’d like.

Unfortunately our physical fragility will be seen by the Italians as a route to another famous victory. They are the most improved team in this tournament and having impressed in the November internationals, they started the competition with a massive win over France in Rome. Under Jaques Brunel they are playing a much more entertaining style of rugby and they aren’t as reliant on their big pack of forwards as they were under Nick Mallet.

Andrea Masi and Gonzalo Canale have been around for years but now they have more consistency at outhalf through Luciano Orquera and pace and power in Giovanbattista Venditti on the wing. They come into this match having been very unlucky not to a least come away with a draw from their trip to Twickenham.

When Jonny Sexton was fit to play, I fancied our chances and that isn’t being disrespectful to Paddy Jackson who I believe in time will become a international quality out-half.

Gilroy replacing McFadden gives us more strike power out wide but weakens our defence. However given how we have wanted a dry pitch all season, I expect Ireland to throw the ball around. We need to use the maul in a similar way as we did against the French. It will be crucial in taking the steam out of the Italian pack and we must then use Conor Murray to test them around the fringes where their defence has looked vulnerable. It’s a cliché but we need to earn the right to go wide and I expect Ireland to punch around the ten channel early doors. A lot of this Irish team are in danger of missing out on the Lions Tour and will need to finish tomorrow with a big performance.


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