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Ireland leave Rome 'relieved' but underperformance causes concern

Joe Schmidt said he was proud of how his players responded in the second half.

Murray Kinsella reports from Rome

EVERYONE WILL HAVE their own theory as to what’s going on with Ireland after three consecutive performances in which they have been short of their best but, in truth, no one really knows the answer.

Even Ireland themselves, which is perhaps the biggest concern.

Rob Kearney Ireland were disappointed by their performance in Rome. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Is the training environment too tense under Joe Schmidt? Not intense enough after last year’s glories? Too much contact in training or not enough contact? A dropping of energy after an incredible 2018 or the opposition teams raising their game against the champions?

The ways in which Ireland are coming up short are identifiable – poor passes at key moments, set-piece failings at crucial times, kicking deficiencies, handling errors, the failure to take attacking opportunities – but the why is harder to pin down.

To go along with the confusion, Ireland leave Rome with a clear sense of relief, having managed to eke out a bonus-point 26-16 victory after a real scare at Stadio Olimpico.

“There’s a sense of relief because we didn’t play as well as we would have liked and because we were down 16-12 at half-time and we were up against an Italian side who have proven in this competition that they are tough to beat,” said Schmidt post-match.

“There’s a sense of relief because while we did create opportunities, I don’t think we made the most of them.

“The last phase of the game sums up the performance to a degree, where Jacob Stockdale does an incredible job from the in-goal out to the halfway line, one man to beat and the pass doesn’t go to hand and we knock it on and we’re left scrambling around on the ground trying to grab the ball.

“At the end of all that we are relieved.”

As tends to be the case in professional sport, fingers are pointed at individuals after underperformances and Ireland’s short-of-form halfback pairing of Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton will take some of the brunt of that.

Dave Kilcoyne, Quinn Roux and Joe Schmidt during the final moments of the game Schmidt watches the closing stages from the sidelines. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Schmidt is backing his two key men to work back into form but he hinted at displeasure with the performances of others.

“There were some players given an opportunity today and some of them took it in parts and not in other parts,” said Schmidt, who had introduced Sean Cronin, Dave Kilcoyne, Ultan Dillane and Jordi Murphy to his starting team.

“They were so very keen to get things right that sometimes that can adversely affect the way that they execute things because we weren’t as accurate as we would have liked to have been.”

Keen to stress some of the positives of Ireland’s win in Rome, Schmidt said a second half which Ireland won 14-0, having trailed 16-12 at the break, was satisfying.

“I challenged the team at half-time, I might have said, ‘This is perfect, now we can find out can we work our way back into the game? Can we get back in control and can we make sure that we get the full account from this game?’

“I’m proud of the way the players managed to stay calm enough and deliver what we needed.

“Because when you’re in that situation and the anxiety levels have spiked and you’re away from home – there’s a huge expectation that we come here and the points differential has been big [in this fixture] in recent years.

“Now, suddenly, it’s not. Where do we find that reserve of confidence, that collective reserve to make sure there’s enough cohesion. We create two try-scoring opportunities and also keep them tryless, keep them scoreless in the second half.”

Conor Murray celebrates scoring their fourth try Conor Murray scored Ireland's fourth try. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

With Wales having made it three wins from three against England on Saturday, they lead the way in the Six Nations table on 12 points.

The English are two behind and Ireland’s bonus point leaves them a single point back from Eddie Jones’ team, meaning Schmidt’s men have an outside chance of winning the championship.

“We’re still obviously on the back foot,” said Schmidt. “England have got 10 points, they didn’t get a bonus point [against Wales] which opens the door a little bit for us and obviously Wales are in the strongest position now.

“They’ve won three out of three, they’ve won away in France so they’ve only got the game away to Scotland now to play away from home and then us back in Cardiff.

“That’s going to be a huge match for us. We’ve got to make sure that we over the next two weeks keep building.

“There’ll be a few guys coming in and out in the build-up to the France game and then we’ve got to put a better performance together because France look like they’d built a bit [against Scotland] and that’s going to be tough for us.”

Fresh from their victory over Scotland, the French will be keen to further improve when they visit Dublin on 10 March, but Ireland have their own form to worry about.

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Murray Kinsella

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