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Schmidt's Ireland look to balance experience and 'aggressive' youth for Italy

Fixing the lineout is of paramount importance as Ireland look for a first win in five games.

“SOMETIMES IF YOU get a taste and then you’re put back in your box for a bit, it makes you hungrier.”

Ireland assistant coach Greg Feek is talking specifically about Tadhg Furlong in this instance, but the hope is that the message does not apply to Ultan Dillane, Josh van der Flier and Stuart McCloskey ahead of this weekend.

Joe Schmidt Schmidt with scrum-half Conor Murray at training yesterday. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

After the promising trio were given their international debuts against England in round three of the Six Nations, Ireland supporters will be willing Joe Schmidt to give them a second cap against Italy on Saturday afternoon.

There is value in slowly easing young players into the Test arena, dipping them in and out of action, but Dillane, van der Flier and McCloskey all showed up well in Twickenham. They are certainly ready for a home clash with Italy.

After the above comment in regard to Furlong – who was left out of the 35-man squad for the final two rounds of the Six Nations – Feek underlined that Ireland “always choose a team that’s best for that week.”

Given his form, dynamism and comfort in handling the ball, Dillane therefore appears a genuine contender to earn his first start for Ireland after featuring so impressively off the bench against the English.

He’s a very tough competitor,” is second row rival Donnacha Ryan’s take on the Connacht man. “If you’re going to make it in the second row or the front five, you’d want to have that sort of edge to you.

“He’s extremely athletic, great pace, he’s very, very aggressive and when you combine that with his attitude, skill, knowledge, you put those components together and you have a very formidable character. He’s going to be a tremendous player.”

Dillane is in competition with Ryan, Devin Toner and Dave Foley this week for a starting slot in Schmidt’s XV, while van der Flier must contend with the challenge of Munster man Tommy O’Donnell in the back row.

In the front row, it would seem natural for Jack McGrath, Rory Best and Mike Ross to continue, while Jamie Heaslip and CJ Stander look likely to continue in the back row for Ireland too. Rhys Ruddock is another possibility in an area of strength.

Ultan Dillane Marmion and Dillane are set for involvement this weekend. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

The Paddy Jackson bandwagon is justifiably jam-packed at present and there is absolutely a case to be made for the Ulsterman to make his first appearance of the championship again this weekend, either in the starting team or at least off the bench.

Eoin Reddan’s calf strain is a concern, but the prospect of Kieran Marmion being rewarded for his fine Connacht form with a fifth Ireland cap off the bench is exciting.

Rob Kearney’s fitness or otherwise would appear to hold the key to the outside backs, though it would be a surprise to see him recover for Saturday. Stuart McCloskey, Robbie Henshaw, Andrew Trimble, Keith Earls and Jared Payne is the ideal selection in many eyes.

Whatever way Schmidt does go with his match day 23, a strong win is the absolute priority in Dublin this weekend. While development of young players is part of the picture, and playing style will be closely assessed, a first victory in 2016 is required.

We want to win,” says Feek. “We don’t expect ourselves to win, and we’ve got the work ethic and the attitude at the moment to try and prove to ourselves and to earn it.

“That’s in the forefront of our minds and I’d say that bit of nervousness has already started at training and it will keep building for the rest of the week; that good nervous energy where you have got that anticipation.”

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Ireland have the quality to break Italy down of course, though their set-piece platform must be at a championship peak if Sexton or Jackson is to ignite the attacking play.

The lineout was a major issue in Twickenham last time out, depriving Ireland of possession in key areas of the pitch and at important times in the game, but Simon Easterby and his pack have been working hard to rectify the failings.

Donnacha Ryan and George Ford Ryan is competing with Devin Toner, Dave Foley and Dillane. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“Sometimes you get unlucky, that’s the way it goes,” says lock Ryan of the lineout shortcomings last time out. “It’s very frustrating, I know Dev and myself were frustrated from that point of view.

“You’ve just got to pick yourself up, look at the process of what we did and didn’t do, then get it right for this weekend.”

The scrum, too, will be under close scrutiny. Angus Gardiner, an Australian, oversees his first ever Six Nations game on Saturday, meaning there may be some adaptation required from both teams to meet his Super Rugby-related refereeing habits.

Ireland struggled at scrum time against Wales and France in the opening rounds, before a cleaner, straighter battle against the English in round three.

“In the last two Six Nations there’s been really good consistency and we got rewarded for what they wanted,” says Feek of the refereeing of scrums.

If it wasn’t rewarded, then you just got your ball and nothing really happened. I think there’s been a slight change since mid-way through the World Cup that I’ve noticed in terms of what’s been policed consistency.

“That’s rugby, I suppose. It’s a big learning for all of us, for me in particular and for the players. To coach to the letter of the law and for the players to be able to do it is probably a lot harder than just saying ‘go for it’.”

Even with some issues to be addressed at the set-piece, it would be a major shock for Ireland not to improve their poor recent try-scoring record and mark a first win in the championship this weekend.

The Ireland players huddle Ireland are searching for a first win in five games. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Losing to Italy on home soil would push Ireland into disaster territory, but there is little arrogance at Carton House this week. The tense 16-9 victory over Jacques Brunel’s side at the World Cup is fresh in the memory.

“They nearly beat us,” says Feek, “it has a lot of relevance, that’s the last time we played [them]. They were really physical, they upset our breakdown, they were good at set-piece.

“We’re fully aware of what they have to offer. They’re really good strong, physical players up front, obviously [Sergio] Parisse is at a whole new level, [Leonardo] Ghiraldini coming back in provides a bit of go-forward, a bit of nous. So we’re full aware of their attacking potential and their defensive prowess and their set-piece.”

Ireland need their own strong, physical players – the likes of Jamie Heaslip and Rory Best – to hit a peak and end the winless streak.

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Murray Kinsella

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