Wingers always run the risk of exposure.
That was a literal rather than a figurative possibility in the amateur days, one encapsulated by Simon Geoghegan’s experiences in an Irish jersey in the early-to-mid 1990s when he spent a succession of freezing Five Nations weekends waiting forlornly for the ball.
Ireland’s style still isn’t what you might term swashbuckling, but Geoghegan’s successors know far less of that deprivation of possession. Most wings have licence to roam and to get their heads in a ruck. Passes are no longer rationed so severely.
Keith Earls scores tries for Ireland at a rate of one every 2.65 games but exposure is still a hazard of the trade, as he found during the first half in Scotland when last in a line of defenders sucked into the midfield as Scotland hunted down a second try.
With Sean Maitland and Stuart Hogg approaching at pace up his touchline, the Munsterman was left between a rock and a hard place and was ultimately unable to prevent the Glasgow and Saracens backs from combining and bypassing both him and Rob Kearney.
That was only the most obvious and costly example of how Ireland lost their defensive shape in Edinburgh during the first 40 minutes of the Six Nations and, though mistakes were widespread, some are more easily blamed than others.
“Yeah, that’s the problem with wingers,” said Earls, a rueful half-smile on his face, “wingers tend to get the blame! That and 13 are probably the hardest place to defend. We knew early on with our line-speed, [defence coach Andy Farrell] didn’t go at us at half-time.
“He just said, ‘Look, we’re not doing what we said we were going to do.’ We spoke about it all week and we didn’t do it. We did it in the second half and it worked. The first half was quite frustrating as a winger.”
Farrell has suggested the fault was down to individual errors rather than systemic failure and Earls countered the criticism that it took Ireland too long to recalibrate by pointing out that the players had discussed remedies under the posts.
Even still, it wasn’t until half-time when Farrell had his say that the spell was broken and the problem fixed and Earls, while commending the Scots, wasn’t the first Irishman to rue what he says was their own principle role in the reversal.
“Imagine if we started well,” he said, “it would have been a lot different.”
Instead, the players have been left harbouring regrets and many will no doubt have come away from Murrayfield wondering whether they will be afforded a chance to atone from the off against Italy for the individual and collective disappointments.
“Rugby isn’t healthy for the mind. It’s up and down. You could be on top of the world one week and then you’re back down. You’re representing your country which is always massive, you know the whole nation is watching you and the people that travel.
“Then when you have a poor start, you come so close and then you lose; it’s extremely disappointing. Especially looking back on it again, we had unbelievable opportunities and we beat ourselves. We let Scotland beat us.”
The Azzurri fixture would have been a tempting opportunity for change anyway, such are their shortcomings, and the back three is an area where choice is no deterrent for Joe Schmidt should he be of a mind to mix things up.
Earls, Rob Kearney, and Simon Zebo all have considerable credit in the bank but Tommy Bowe bagged 12 minutes when replacing Earls last week while both Andrew Trimble and Andrew Conway are fit again.
“The back three competition has always been unbelievable,” said Earls, who picked up a Zebo pass to claim a 20th try in green last week in Edinburgh. “We have got the best out of each other over the last couple of years.”
The easy assumption is that whoever gets the nod out wide this time stands to benefit. Italy have a habit of coughing up big scores — Wales hit them for 33 points last week, pulling away a tad too late to claim the bonus point.
Four of Earls’ international tries have been claimed against the Azzurri but he has painful memories of that blue shirt from 2013 when Ireland lost and he was one of a bunch of visiting players to depart the scene injured.
A busted shoulder did for the Limerick man as Italy claimed a maiden championship win over the Irish that afternoon.
Anything less than a five-point haul from the Stadio Olimpico on Saturday will likely be viewed as another disappointment. “We’ll see how the game goes,” said Earls. “First and foremost, if we win the game by a point we’ll take that, no problem.”
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