It may still be a World Cup pool game but for Ireland boss Joe Schmidt, tomorrow’s showdown with Italy effectively marks the start of the knockout stages.
Head coach Schmidt said yesterday he will settle for a narrow win over Italy, insisting all that matters is a victory at the Olympic Stadium and guaranteed progress to the World Cup quarter-finals.
A win over an Italian outfit which will be led for the first time in this tournament by a fit-again Sergio Parisse would also send the Azzurri packing, leaving Ireland and France tofight it out in eight days time to finish top of Pool D.
“I’d be delighted to get the result,” Schmidt said, having named his strongest possible side. “It’s probably not often I say that. If I’m talking to you guys post-game and we’ve had a two-point win I’d be delighted to have qualified.
“In a tournament like this performance is obviously pivotal but I don’t think anyone’s going to complain as long as you remain alive in the tournament.
“We’re virtually now at the beginning of the knockout stages because while it might not be fatal it would be a very serious blow if we didn’t win on Sunday and for us that would make the following week a pressure-cooker that we could do without.”
With backs Rob Kearney and Jared Payne unable to complete a full week’s training due to knocks sustained in last weekend’s Wembley win over Romania, Schmidt has retained Simon Zebo at full-back and switched his Munster team-mate Keith Earls to outside centre from the left wing with Dave Kearney filling the vacuum.
Schmid was hopeful Payne would be fit to face France in Cardiff while Rob Kearney was fit for the Italy game but had not been able to prepare earlier in the week.
“We’d be quietly confident at the moment,” Schmidt said of Payne. “We’d be expecting he’d be able to train at least individually on Tuesday and he’d be able to train with the team on Wednesday.”
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