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Six Nations: Opening loss still rankles Ireland

Schmidt is happy to get a response but it doesn't make up for slump in Scotland

By Ruaidhri O'Connor

For all the fun in the Roman sun, the defeat to Scotland lingered in Irish minds. This should have been step two on a journey towards a Grand Slam and the fact that it's not devalued the record points total and everything that came with it.

It was instructive that Joe Schmidt kept Conor Murray on for so long despite the need for Kieran Marmion to gain experience, while Ian Keatley's late introduction came on the wing. The coach wanted to buttress his side's points total for the endgame in just over a month's time.

Six points from two games and a points differential of +48 leaves Ireland looking in a reasonably healthy position despite their loss, but watching England grind their way past Wales only served as a reminder that what we saw in Rome was not a contest.

The reality for Ireland is that they need two more wins and at least one try-scoring bonus to keep pace with England ahead of their final-day battle with the champions in Dublin.

The visit of France in two weeks' time will give us a better barometer of where this team stands. Certainly, they responded to their disappointing display in Edinburgh with a fast start and from the moment Simon Zebo dominated the first aerial collision to claim Murray's box-kick, the tone was set.

Against Scotland, they arrived late to the ground and never caught up on themselves. Afterwards their coach questioned their mental fragility, but despite losing their captain Rory Best to a stomach bug on the morning of the game, the players tore into their task.

A similarly sluggish start in any of the remaining games is likely to leave Schmidt's side without a hope of winning a third title in four campaigns and the coach is hopeful they continue to meet the standard they set from the off.

"It's the standard the players want," Schmidt said of the start.

"You have a look at our start against Australia, our start against the All Blacks in Chicago, even our start, as much as the All Blacks scored early in the Aviva, I thought in the next 10 minutes we really put them under pressure. So I think we crossed the line twice in the next 10 minutes after they scored a try, so as far as starts are concerned, it's unusual for us.

"We touched upon a few things during the week to make sure guys were ready and they hit the ground running.

"But the Championship is a little bit different. There is a little bit of pressure that you don't quite get in the November Series.

"Knowing that there's points up for grabs can just cause guys to get a little bit spooked and we have a number in their first or second Championship that don't quite have that experience.

"Hopefully they'll build a bit of confidence and appreciate they can live up to these big matches."

For all that Schmidt cut a far more relaxed figure than he had in the build-up to the game when he refused to let go of the impact the short delay had had on his players in Edinburgh, the sight of his players running in nine tries didn't wash away the bitter taste of last week's under-performance.

"It (the loss) is always going to rattle around, just because there are things that are always a concern that they might pop up again," he said.

"I don't think progress is linear, there are different things. It's a bit like tuning a car, you might tinker with this part of it and this part over here that doesn't quite function as a result."

The paucity of the opposition helped, but Ireland took to their task in far better fashion than they had a week previously and unleashed the potential of their ground-and-pound back-row.

In total, CJ Stander, Sean O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip carried the ball 53 times between them for a total of 143 metres. Peter O'Mahony is fit again and his inclusion would give the back-row a more balanced look, but it is impossible to ignore those numbers.

Stander is hardly going to be dropped after his hat-trick, while O'Brien is the best player in the squad and Heaslip was outstanding as skipper.

If Andy Farrell made improvements to the rearguard, we were never going to find out in Rome. The line-speed was better, but Guy Noves' enormous ball-carriers and pair of Fijian wingers will offer a different challenge.

Still, Ireland remain in the hunt ahead of their return to the Aviva Stadium in 11 days' time. There are no more soft touches - it's all Championship rugby from here on in.

Belfast Telegraph

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