Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO
THERE ARE MORE reliable metrics to judge Joe Schmidt’s time in charge of Ireland by, but it’s worth noting a shift in the perception of Italy.
Traditionally, we would consistently build up to meetings with the Azzurri with the ‘always-improving’ tag ready to slap on them.
With everyone braced for an arm-wrestle until the clock turned 60, Italian Tests ordinarily lived down to expectations and the mire almost pulled Ireland in to embarrassing losses long before Declan Kidney’s 2013 defeat in Rome. The year before, Kidney presided over a five-try, 42-point cruise over the Azzurri and that is the tone which Schmidt has continued on.
Despite noteworthy improvements at club and Test level, it’s fitting for a team with Championship aspirations that Italy are no longer what Steve Staunton might call a ‘potential banana skin’, but a chance to rack up a bonus point win and – crucial in a competition as tight as the Six Nations – a healthy points differential.
Half of all Ireland’s Six Nations tries since Schmidt’s first campaign in 2014 have come against Italy (27 of 53). The two grounded in the Johnny Sexton-less, wet and dreary tournament opener in 2015 was a blip in between 2014′s seven and the nine posted in each of the last two encounters.
“We want to get out there and score tries and last year the number of tries was fantastic,” Schmidt said after naming his matchday line-up yesterday.
“We knew we needed to score lots of points and I don’t think that necessarily changes.
You have got to keep scoring, keep driving yourself forward. Because this competition, maybe not in the last two years but the two years previous to that, came down to very fine margins.
“So our intention is to keep scoring points. I think we have added some guys who can potentially help us do that and, you know, we at the same time try to have a focus on doing some things really well that will inevitably lead to opportunities where we can score points.”
The additions from last season’s rout Schmidt points to are the creative powers of Bundee Aki and the finishing prowess of Jacob Stockdale. Neither of last year’s hat-trick heroes – Craig Gilroy and CJ Stander – start, but those selected will relish the prospect of showing off their attacking prowess in the first Aviva Stadium fixture of 2018.
Among those under starter’s orders after missing this fixture last season include Sexton, Peter O’Mahony, Jack Conan and Dan Leavy. However, it’s on the bench where Ireland are keeping the fireworks.
Source: Dan Sheridan
Though Conor O’Shea has often openly stated his aim to cut down Italy’s infamous rate of late concessions, England’s three-try final quarter on Sunday shows there will be openings available to Ireland. Particularly if the six-day turnaround succeeds in making the Italian defence disjointed by the time Joey Carbery and Jordan Larmour arrive on the field.
Even on debut, there are few who doubt the 20-year-old Leinster tyro is capable of hitting the ground running on this stage.
“When I first saw (Larmour) playing, probably three years ago, he was playing in the midfield that day and (I took note of) how dynamic he was, how he sensed really good timing, whether to make the pass or whether to carry the ball or whether to step back inside or take the outside break.
“The great thing with Jordan is he has actually got the talent to do whatever of those that are required. He is not a huge young man by any means, but he has got so many other aspects to his game that he more than makes up for maybe that size and maturity that other players will bring to the game with the aspects that I have mentioned.”
Of the 27 tries against Italy on Schmidt’s watch in this tournament, 40% have come in the final 20 minutes of the four matches. So the Kiwi hopes that supporters in the Aviva come Saturday afternoon will remain patient if scores don’t materialise early.
“Four years ago when we won the Championship by points differential, we scored 19 points in the last (12) minutes. So if the crowd can be patient maybe we can do something similar. Sometimes it takes a while to break a team down.
“Italy, I remember four years ago, when we did do that, they had been very close to beating Wales in the Millennium that year. It was only last year that they managed to beat the Springboks.
“They’ve got some new, exciting players,” adds Schmidt as he began reeling off the Italian team-sheet and their qualities. But having named a team low on experimentation and high on expectation, it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that Ireland are worthy hot favourites.
“If it takes a while, I hope the crowd can stay in behind the team.
“The only thing we can guarantee is that we will be working as hard as we can to keep them entertained and the scoreboard ticking over.
“How we do that? We’re going to have to vary our game and try to keep them guessing.
“At the same time, we will have to match a fair level of physicality from what they are going to bring.”
He adds: ”we would love to be able to attack from wherever the opportunity lends itself and at the same time play fairly smart against a team that you know but for a slight forward pass would have been 20-17 points down against England with 25 minutes to go last weekend.
“So you just can’t be off the mark very far at all otherwise you will put yourself straight under pressure.”