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No excuses for Ireland as they aim to get Six Nations title bid back on track

Joe Schmidt’s men are strong favourites at Stadio Olimpico this afternoon.

Murray Kinsella reports from Rome

WE’LL FIND OUT soon whether or not Rory Best has fully recovered from his upset stomach in order to take his place as captain and hooker in Ireland’s starting team against Italy [KO 2.25pm], but the hope must be that the bug wasn’t contagious.

Sean O'Brien Ireland were without Rory Best for their captain's run. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

That said, Ireland were convinced yesterday that they wouldn’t find themselves up a certain creek without a paddle.

“He has obviously been put into his own bedroom, in a bit of isolation. He’s fortunate that as captain he does receive his own room,” said assistant coach Simon Easterby after Ireland’s captain-less captain’s run.

“As far as we know, it’s not contagious and the doctor is covering everything off and making sure that we get to the bottom of it…”

Easterby asked to be excused for his excellent pun, and it was a welcome light-hearted moment after what has been a strange week for Ireland.

Joe Schmidt invited negativity by mentioning his side’s late arrival to Murrayfield again on Thursday, while there has also been the usual downtrodden post-mortem that accompanies any Ireland underperformance.

In a more serious vein, it would be interesting to see how Ireland manage if Best is not fit to start or struggles on the pitch after his illness.

Schmidt referenced how his players had experienced “anxiety” last weekend in Murrayfield due to an apparently shortened warm up, so losing their captain might be an even greater test of mental strength.

“I think too much was made of that last week,” said Easterby. ”I think the players will not look for excuses in terms of the way that they prepare and I certainly don’t think that this will have an effect on them.

“There’s a lot of preparation that has been done up until now and it is about dotting the is and crossing the ts, 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.

Niall Scannell Niall Scannell could play a prominent part. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“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.”

In the event that Best doesn’t recover, Niall Scannell will make his debut in the number two shirt, and even if Best does play, it’s certain that the Munster hooker will be getting a lengthy stint off the bench.

“He has shown a lot of good qualities in a Munster team who are playing really well against the top teams in Europe,” said Easterby by way of stressing that Scannell is ready.

“He’s brought that type of form into training, that type of quality. He’s a very intelligent guy as well. He certainly understands the game and has a really good grasp of what he needs to do.”

Scannell’s lineout throwing has been a strength for him for most of this season, and it’s certainly a skill that could prove useful at Stadio Olimpico today.

Whoever is throwing the ball, Ireland’s lineout and maul simply must be better. They lost three of their own 14 throws last weekend against Scotland, winning some scrappy ball at other times, while their maul missed several key opportunities.

Donnacha Ryan’s return to the starting XV in place of Iain Henderson should help the improvement in this area, but Sergio Parisse and Dries van Schalkwyk will be targeting a few steals.

“I think it’s been well documented that it didn’t go as well as would have liked and it’s a really important source of possession,” said Easterby. “It’s an important part of the game, not just to get yourself into the game but also to take away the opposition’s threats there.

“We clearly didn’t do that on a number of occasions and that’s something that as a coach I’m certainly disappointed with, but the players were also disappointed with a few things that we didn’t get quite right.”

Ireland’s defensive spacing, folding and numbering need to make big strides this weekend, while their consistency in decision-making and execution in attack must grow too.

A view of training Ireland at the Stadio Olimpico yesterday. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Schmidt’s men have several areas where they need to be better, but the truth is that this week’s opposition are weaker than what they faced in Murrayfield and anything other than a convincing win would be a major shock.

Rome has proved difficult for Irish teams in the past, but there no real excuses for Schmidt’s men this weekend.

Edoardo Padovani has been exciting with ball in hand for Italy but we should expect to see his positioning and aerial skills challenged, while the narrowness of the Italians’ defensive set-up should allow Paddy Jackson to show off his cross-field kicking.

A disjointed kick chase offers opportunity for Ireland, even if kick return is not a strength of this team, while the poor discipline of Conor O’Shea’s side should allow the visitors to kick up the touchline and fire up that lineout maul that stuttered last weekend.

Simone Favaro is going to level a few Irishmen in the tackle but his habit of completely hammering out of the defensive line could leave holes for Jackson and his backs to exploit if they can learn the lessons from Murrayfield and be brave and aware enough to play flat.

Andy Farrell has spent the week reminding his players that their own defensive success is all about attitude. Look out for the leaders who attempt to set the tone early on with the kind of hit that was sorely missing in Edinburgh.

O’Shea has brought about improvements in how Italy operate, probably most of all in their organisation and planning off the pitch, but he is still relatively fresh to the job.

All the old clichés about Italy being tough to play against have been trodden out by Ireland again this week, but if Schmidt’s men cannot put this Italian side away on a comfortable scoreline, they have no business dreaming of battling back to a Six Nations title this year.

A comprehensive win and perhaps even the first-ever try-scoring bonus point in the competition would certainly get the show back on track.

Italy:

15. Edoardo Padovani
14. Angelo Esposito
13. Tommaso Benvenuti
12. Luke McLean
11. Giovanbattista Venditti
10. Carlo Canna
9. Edoardo Gori

1. Andrea Lovotti
2. Leonardo Ghiraldini
3. Lorenzo Cittadini
4. Marco Fuser
5. Dries Van Schalkwyk
6. Maxime Mbanda
7. Simone Favaro
8. Sergio Parisse (captain)

Replacements:

16. Ornel Gega
17. Sami Panico
18. Dario Chistolini
19. George Biagi
20. Abraham Steyn
21. Giorgio Bronzini
22. Tommaso Allan
23. Michele Campagnaro

Ireland:

15. Rob Kearney
14. Keith Earls
13. Garry Ringrose
12. Robbie Henshaw
11. Simon Zebo
10. Paddy Jackson
9. Conor Murray

1. Cian Healy
2. Rory Best (captain)/Niall Scannell
3. Tadhg Furlong
4. Donnacha Ryan
5. Devin Toner
6. CJ Stander
7. Sean O’Brien
8. Jamie Heaslip

Replacements:

16. Niall Scannell/James Tracy
17. Jack McGrath
18. John Ryan
19. Ultan Dillane
20. Josh van der Flier
21. Kieran Marmion
22. Ian Keatley
23. Craig Gilroy

Referee: Glen Jackson [NZR].

Subscribe to The42 Rugby Show podcast here:

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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