Ireland’s readiness for the unexpected, which failed them so demonstrably last weekend, looks set to be re-tested this afternoon against Italy if captain Rory Best fails to shake off a stomach bug.
Best, who earned his 101st Test cap in Ireland’s defeat against Scotland last week, yesterday sat out the captain’s run he was scheduled to lead at Stadio Olimpico having come down with the bug on Thursday night on the squad’s arrival in the Italian capital. Munster’s uncapped 23-year-old hooker Niall Scannell, an unused replacement last week in Edinburgh, was last night standing by for what would be a remarkable Test debut from the first whistle with Leinster’s James Tracy, who made his first appearance for Ireland in November, drafted into the camp as cover for a potential bench place.
“He had a bit of a stomach upset overnight and he didn’t sleep particularly well,” forwards coach Simon Easterby said of Best as he sat alongside vice-captain Jamie Heaslip after the captain’s run.
“We just left him in the hotel to try and recuperate and get some sleep in before tomorrow.
Easterby added he was confident Best would recuperate in time to take the field.
“It’s just one of those things that you can’t predict. We thought the best course of action was to leave him back in the hotel while we did our team run. He’s hopefully going to be okay with plenty of sleep and recovery over the next few hours.”
This latest development comes a week after Ireland got their 2017 RBS 6 Nations campaign off to a losing start following a terrible first-half performance against the Scots. Head coach Joe Schmidt implied the concession of three early tries and a 21-8 half-time deficit had been a knock-on effect from the squad’s late arrival at Murrayfield caused by a mix-up with police outriders concerning the route from team hotel to stadium. And if there was any doubt as to his thinking, Schmidt returned to the subject unprompted on Thursday after he announced the team line-up to face Italy.
Yet while Schmidt spoke of the delay of less than 15 minutes making his “routine-based” players anxious, Easterby dismissed suggestions the Best doubts will cause further disruption.
“Yeah, I think too much was made of that last week,” the assistant coach said, appearing to contradict his boss.
“I think the players will not look for excuses in terms of the way that they prepare and I certainly don’t think this will have an effect on them.
“There’s a lot of preparation that has been done up until now and today is about dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s, everything’s in place and it’s just about rehearsing a few things.
“And at some point in the game, if your captain has to go off, you still have to keep moving forward and make sure that whatever your plan is that you don’t lose track of that. So whether the captain starts or at this late stage if Rory wasn’t to make the team, then at least we think we can feel pretty confident that the lads will take on board whatever is in place in the week and deliver the game plan.”
Any uncertainty shouldn’t be enough to derail a side playing Italy, despite their apparent resurgence this season under the stewardship of new head coach Conor O’Shea. History suggests that despite a November win over South Africa in Florence and a valiant 60-minute effort last week at home to Wales before their resolve was cracked by three final-quarter tries, the Azzurri will struggle to get their Six Nations act together just yet. With just one Six Nations win in their last 16 games — an away win over Scotland in 2015 — and having last tasted victory in Rome against Declan Kidney’s Ireland in the final round of 2013, Italy have no championship form to speak of. Indeed, they have lost every round two encounter since they joined the Six Nations in 2000.
It represents something of a hiding to nothing for Ireland, so stacked are the odds in their favour, yet these players, fuelled by the anger stemming from last week’s performance will take no comfort from stats.
They will have seen the warning signs of the Italians’ hour of competitiveness on home turf seven days ago and will be equally determined to right their own wrongs, no matter whether their captain is able to join them. Schmidt will also be looking for a reaction to show him he can prepare with confidence for the visit of France to Dublin in two weeks.
There is much to be learned from today’s contest but the lessons will be easier to swallow if they are taught on the back of a convincing victory.
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