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Schmidt's Ireland in a better place after being 'spooked' early in Six Nations

The Ireland head coach won’t be getting over the round-one defeat in Scotland just yet though.

Murray Kinsella reports from Rome

TWO GAMES IN and Ireland are in the Six Nations fight, that much is certain after a bonus-point victory against Conor O’Shea’s woefully poor Italy.

A week on from the disappointment of Murrayfield, Joe Schmidt watched as his team started superbly and never looked back in a nine-try 63-10 demolition of the Azzurri on Saturday in Stadio Olimpico.

Conor O'Shea and Joe Schmidt before the game Schmidt was pleased by his side's performance levels in Rome. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

While the opposition was inadequate, the Irish performance in Rome was much more similar to what we saw from Schmidt’s side in last year’s November series, when they beat the All Blacks, Canada and Australia.

Chief among the satisfactions from the win over Italy was a dominant and accurate start by Ireland, as they surged into a 14-0 lead in the first quarter, such a contrast to how they had begun against Scotland in round one.

“We touched upon a few things during the week to make sure guys were ready and they hit the ground running,” said Schmidt afterwards. “But the championship is a little bit different.

“There is a little bit of, I suppose, pressure that you don’t quite get in the November series. You want to win every Test match, you want to perform well, the crowds are there and there’s a great atmosphere.

“But the accumulation of knowing that there’s points up for grabs and this is the championship that we play in, it can just cause guys to get a little bit spooked and we have a number of guys playing in their first or second championship so that they don’t quite have that experience.

“So, hopefully after today and last week they’ll build a bit of confidence and appreciate that they can live up to these big matches.”

The likes of Garry Ringrose and Tahdg Furlong – in their first Six Nations campaigns as starters – as well as Niall Scannell and James Tracy – Six Nations debutants on Saturday – will certainly have benefited from the confidence boost of hammering Italy.

Though this success on the road brings the optimism levels around Ireland right back up, Schmidt admits that it doesn’t put the failings in Murrayfield to bed.

“Aw, it’s always going to rattle around, you know? Just because there are things that are always a concern that they might pop up again,” said Schmidt.

Craig Gilroy scores their ninth try despite Giovanbattista Venditti Craig Gilroy bursts clear for one of his three tries. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“I don’t think any progress is linear. As I said last week, I think there are different things… it’s a bit like tuning a car, you might tinker with this part of it and it’s this part over here that doesn’t quite function as a result.

“And you’re always trying to make sure as much of it is running as smoothly as possible.

“So there are a few things that will still be in the back of our minds that we know that we need to be good at, that we haven’t quite been yet. But there are things that we feel that we demonstrated that were pretty competent when our mindset’s right and the accuracy’s right.”

Ireland’s try-scoring exploits have grabbed the headlines since Saturday, of course, but Schmidt was also pleased to see his side muscle up in defence after Andy Farrell’s leadership of that aspect of their game had come into the firing line last week.

“I think the linespeed and intent was really good,” said Schmidt. “If you look at periods of the second half against Scotland I think there was evidence of it as well and it was consolidated today.

“Hopefully, what we showed last week and consolidated today gives individuals confidence that they can be really effective and proactive defensively instead of, you know, you can’t wait and watch good teams play at you. You’ve got to somehow keep the pressure on them even if they have the ball.”

Ireland are on a short break at the moment, but they reconvene in Monaghan on Wednesday for a three-day camp before the first rest weekend of the Six Nations.

The extended period of time between the Italy clash and the visit of France to Dublin on Saturday 25 February will allow Johnny Sexton, Peter O’Mahony and Andrew Trimble to recover fully from injuries, thereby giving Schmidt a few welcome selection headaches.

Sexton is short of games due to his injury travails since November, but Schmidt is likely to resist the temptation to release the out-half to play for Leinster in Friday night’s Guinness Pro12 clash with Edinburgh at the RDS.

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Johnny Sexton Sexton will be back for the France game. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“It would be good for him to get some game time,” said Schmidt, “but we have Wednesday, Thursday and Friday in camp, so it’s probably important to get some rhythm with us as opposed to get some game time.

“So I think Paddy [Jackson]‘s done a super job, and I think it would be good to have them both in camp and to square them off, and see how they’re travelling.”

A decision for Schmidt at 10, but it’s unlikely that it will fall in the Ulsterman’s favour.

The Ireland head coach will already be totally absorbed in the challenge of beating France in two weekends’ time and he cited the exciting “new blood” in Guy Novès’ side as a threat, name-checking openside flanker Kevin Gourdon among more familiar stars.

Defeat at home would rule Ireland out of title contention in a championship that has already lived up to the billing of being one of the most competitive ever.

England and Wales played out a classic on Saturday night, Scotland and France tussled in a brutal contest yesterday, and Schmidt sees a few more games like it coming in the final three rounds.

Ireland sit second – two points behind England – with two games played, but there are many twists and turns ahead.

“As I said before the championship started, I think it’s going to be a super championship. I really think there’s going to be some battles that come down to the wire and there’s going to be a number of coaches’ fingernails missing at the end of this Six Nations because it’s just going to be really tight and combative.”

Ireland, much-improved in Rome, are back in the mix.

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Murray Kinsella

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