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Schmidt's Ireland strive for attacking 'flow' as Sexton and Murray hit 50

Joe Schmidt’s side are confident that they’re close to truly clicking.
Feb 24th 2019, 7:00 AM 28,476 18

Murray Kinsella reports from Rome

IRELAND’S PLAYERS JOINED the influx of tourists in checking out the Trevi Fountain, Piazza di Spagna and some of the other hotspots in the Italian capital yesterday, but Joe Schmidt’s men are really here for business.

After a stuttering start to their Six Nations, Ireland are ready to click into their most confident gear and find the attacking “flow” that has eluded them so far. 

Cian O'Halloran Cian O'Halloran from Waterford at the Trevi Fountain in Rome. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Schmidt has made four changes to his starting team but all come in the forward pack and his hope is that an unchanged backline built around the highly-experienced Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray can cut loose at Stadio Olimpico [KO 3pm Irish time, Virgin Media].

Sexton has played only 103 minutes of rugby this year due to injury issues, while Murray has been slowing building back towards his best after an extended spell out with a shoulder/neck issue. 

Italy could be the whipping boys as Ireland’s halfbacks hit their finest form on what is their 50th start together in green.

“You get bucketloads of experience, 50 times playing together for our country is incredible… I didn’t know it was that many times,” said Peter O’Mahony, who captains Ireland today with Rory Best rested this weekend.

“We know how important nines and 10s are in rugby. To have two guys that know each other that well, for lots of reasons, it’s such a benefit.

“They’re two competitive people, which adds even more to the class and predominately the direction they give us, from a forward’s point of view, you’re rarely looking around to see where you need to go or what you need to do. From their body language or just the way they carry themselves, you know where you need to be.”

Italy, who are missing captain Sergio Parisse, will be as stubborn as usual but a confidence-building attacking performance from Ireland feels overdue.

“We’ll certainly be looking to improve from the last couple of games we’ve been out and be a bit more cohesive, certainly with the combinations that we’ve picked,” said O’Mahony.

Jonathan Sexton Johnny Sexton at Ireland's captain's run yesterday. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“We want to flow, we certainly want to play rugby and have a little bit more cohesion and be a bit more patient at times.

“We’ve worked hard on our attack over the last couple of weeks and we hope it’s going to come to fruition.”

Combinations like that of Bundee Aki and Chris Farrell in midfield, or the back three of Jacob Stockdale, Rob Kearney and Keith Earls, should be helpful in Ireland firing against the Italians – who have lost their last 19 Six Nations fixtures in a row.

Ireland have felt close to hitting full stride in attack in the opening two rounds, creating chances that they haven’t quite been able to take – as when Rob Kearney ran into space on the left in the second half against Scotland but then saw his offload inside to Farrell go to ground.

“At the time I was waiting for Blair Kinghorn to come to me so I could put away Jacob, but his [Kinghorn's] shape on reading off was really good,” said Kearney.

“Would Jacob have got to the corner? There probably would have been a good chance of it. I did think that if I got a good offload to Chris, he would have been under the sticks, so I don’t think it was wrong option to come back inside, I just need to execute the pass much better.” 

One aspect of Ireland’s attack in this championship that has spoken of progress has been different players popping up at first receiver, something Schmidt has been pushing.

It’s not just been Sexton or Joey Carbery, the two out-halves, with other players like Aki taking on responsibility.

“I think it’s really important that we’re not relying on just one receiver all the time, especially if teams think they know you’re really reliant on one receiver, they just track him across the pitch and they kind of know where you’re going,” said Schmidt. 

Chris Farrell, Jacob Stockdale, Bundee Aki, Conor Murray and Sean Cronin Bundee Aki works on his lineout throwing. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

 “To have the versatility to have a number of guys to play as first receiver is really important.

“In the lead-up to that first try in Edinburgh, it’s Keith Earls who steps in as first receiver. Johnny’s the second receiver and Johnny’s pass is peach-perfect to Jacob on the edge because he puts it across a player and that gives Jacob enough time and space to get the kick away.

“It wouldn’t just be Bundee, I think Garry Ringrose is very good as first receiver, I think Robbie Henshaw can do the job as a first receiver, it’s something we’re trying to get Rob Kearney to get more involved in.

“It’s tough to throw Chris Farrell in and say, ‘Chris, get in there and run the show’, but I think it’s something he is definitely capable of.”

Ireland’s forward pack – which now includes Dave Kilcoyne, Sean Cronin, Ultan Dillane and Jordi Murphy – will look to provide clean attacking possession, as ever.

‘Cohesion’ has been one of the key buzzwords this week in Ireland camp and while O’Mahony wasn’t giving any secrets away, he indicated that they are looking for more from their phase-play attack.

“I think our phase stuff is where we’ve worked quite hard over the last couple of weeks, just guys understanding each other more than anything – where we’re going and where we need to be.

“It certainly isn’t big stuff, it’s just little things that we’ve worked on that we feel will add to our attack and will add to our game, going forward.”

A view Sean Cronin throwing into the line-out Sean Cronin starts at hooker for Ireland. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Despite the slow start to this Six Nations, Ireland feel like their best is close. Today in Rome feels like a good time to take another step towards it.

“If you look at the squad we have, a huge bulk of the lads were there last year, you know what I mean… it’s not that long ago,” said O’Mahony.

“We understand the amount of work we’ve put in and we understand that we’re very close to clicking.”  

Italy:

15. Jayden Hayward
14. Edoardo Padovani
13. Michele Campagnaro
12. Luca Morisi
11. Angelo Esposito
10. Tommaso Allan
9. Tito Tebaldi

1. Andrea Lovotti 
2. Leonardo Ghiraldini (captain)
3. Simone Ferrari
4. Federico Ruzza 
5. Dean Budd
6. Jimmy Tuivaiti
7. Maxime Mbandà
8. Braam Steyn

Replacements:

16. Luca Bigi
17. Cherif Traoré
18. Tiziano Pasquali
19. David Sisi
20. Alessandro Zanni
21. Guglielmo Palazzani
22. Ian McKinley
23. Tommaso Castello 

Ireland:

15. Rob Kearney
14. Keith Earls
13. Chris Farrell
12. Bundee Aki
11. Jacob Stockdale
10. Johnny Sexton
9. Conor Murray

1. Dave Kilcoyne
2. Sean Cronin
3. Tadhg Furlong
4. Ultan Dillane
5. Quinn Roux
6. Peter O’Mahony (captain)
7. Sean O’Brien
8. Jordi Murphy

Replacements:

16. Niall Scannell
17. Jack McGrath
18. John Ryan
19. Iain Henderson
20. Josh van der Flier
21. John Cooney
22. Jack Carty
23. Andrew Conway

Referee: Glen Jackson [New Zealand].

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