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Dublin: 3 °C Friday 15 November, 2019
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Patience the virtue as O'Connell and Ireland put the squeeze on clichés

Softening Italy up no longer an option, says the captain.

Image: Billy Stickland/INPHO

IT’S NOT ENTIRELY clear (at least not to us) whether Italians put the same stock in Gio Visto as the wider world puts in Déjà vu. But whatever you call it, it’s hard to escape a familiar feeling each time Ireland take on Italy in the Six Nations.

‘They’ll fade away after an hour’, ‘they don’t travel well’, ‘it’s better to get them later in the Championship’: All pre-cooked analysis that has been wheeled in and out of cold storage for over a decade each time the Azzuri come into view in the spring.

‘Improving’ must surely be the worst of them all, a condescending pat on the head for the team annually expected to finish sixth out of six.

“Well, we haven’t used any of those clichés this week anyway,” smiles captain Paul O’Connell.

“In terms of softening them up, I just don’t buy into that any more. They finished very well against France, they’re physically very fit.”

Nothing concentrates the mind like defeat either. And so with not only last year’s loss in Rome hanging over many in this squad, but the narrow defeat to England a fortnight ago too, Ireland are once again immersing themselves in the minute detail rather than allowing minds stray onto the grand scale that these games can represent.

“For us, the talk has been about individual preparation. At times, in the England game you can focus on the occasion a little bit.

“But if you can focus as an individual on learning your job inside-out, making sure you know it without having to think about it; that puts you in a position to execute it really aggressively with a lot of intensity.

“That’s the thing for us this week, not worrying about occasions. Brian breaking a record or playing his last home game, or the fact that there’s a possibility of a Championship… we just focus in on trying to get the little things right that we didn’t get right against England – and do it with a little bit more aggression and intensity.”

Patience is apparently a keyword among Joe Schmidt’s squad this week (and not just for those left on the outside of the matchday squads). While we the rugby-watching public see Italy without Sergio Parisse as the ideal chance to increase a slender leading margin on the Six Nations table, Ireland as a group are vowing to take it slow.

“I think we can get carried away being too concerned with points difference.” says Andrew Trimble. “Italy beat us last year and that’s the first thing we’ve got to get right.

Gordon D'Arcy supported by Andrew Trimble Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“Taking opportunities – that’s something we want to work on; when we have a side on the rack we want to put it away.”

Another key indicator for Trimble and his colleagues in the backline will be shoring up the defensive line breached emphatically by England for the crucial score at Twickenham. Though Ireland have conceded just one try in three games so far this Championship, Les Kiss and Schmidt will have been drilling the need to keep another clean sheet into their team.

“The Italian line speed is going to be very difficult to play against,” says the wing, “we just have to have our wits about us. Just have to make sure we’re working hard for ourselves, giving each other options and trail runs.

“First, obviously, we have to soften them up a bit,” adds the wing, though his sentiment is not as contrary to his captain’s view as it sounds. He adds: “Make them think twice about coming up out of the line. They shoot up a lot, they get up in your face and make it very difficult to play.”

‘Still relevant’

It is up front, though, and at the set-pieces where some of the kinder Italian well-worn phrases still hold true. If he hadn’t already known, O’Connell has been shown plenty of footage to reinforce the point.

“Certainly about their pack, [the cliches are] still very relevant. Their pack is incredibly tough and has been since I first came into the Six Nations. Joe was showing us some plays that they did out wide off line-outs; they start with turnovers where they got penalties off scrums after they had turned people over and were able to kick for the corner. They’ve done that repeatedly over the years.”

The Munster lock added: “We scrummed really well against England and that’s going to be a massive part of the game for us at the weekend. ”

“When you look at some of the penalties they’ve won against Wales. And [also] when France  had a big five metre scrum, Italy drove them back three metres, popped them up and won a penalty. I think you’ve got to pay credit to a team who does things like that under pressure. Historically, they’ve scrummed really well.

“Guys like Jack McGrath and Marty Moore are new in, I think they’ve done really well and it’s probably the best scrummaging squad I’ve been involved with for Ireland, but this will probably be the biggest test in the championship for us now.”

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Sean Farrell

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