Six Nations: Ireland's Schmidt glad to have a selection headache
Italy 10-63 Ireland
After a week's worth of bus talk, it was one-way traffic in the Stadio Olimpico on Saturday as Ireland cantered to a mammoth 63-10 nine-try victory over an atrocious Italy.
Ireland left their Six Nations record book in Roman ruins as Joe Schmidt's men established new marks for points, margin of victory and matched their previous best for scores, securing the Championship's first ever try-bonus point in the process.
While CJ Stander took home man of the match honours with his hat-trick - the first by an Irish forward in the Six Nations - two Ulstermen were also hugely prominent, even with skipper Rory Best failing to recover in time from a stomach problem.
After coming on as a second-half substitute, winger Craig Gilroy shone on his first involvement in this competition for four years as he also crossed the whitewash three times, while Paddy Jackson's inventive attacking play was supplemented by a nine for nine showing off the tee.
While Italy were alarmingly poor, both players will feel they laid down a marker to be involved in the bigger challenges ahead - Ireland welcome France to the Aviva Stadium on February 25 - although head coach Schmidt was sparing in his praise after the final whistle, more keen to light-heartedly recall how Stander's clearing kick had created Gilroy's second score.
"I thought it was a mixed bag for Craig," said the Kiwi after the Bangor man's electric treble.
"There were a couple of defensive things, positionally, that I think he'll learn from.
"He was the recipient of one of the most outstanding tactical kicks I've seen in a long time from CJ Stander.
"CJ swears that it was meant to come off the side of his foot like that so he could get the spin to get it into Craig's hands.
"He doesn't need too many invitations when the ball bounces. He is quick, his ability to change direction is very, very good and he took a nice high ball at one stage.
"He ticked most of his boxes really well.
"The reason we chose him is because we were going to maybe give a few different guys chances over these first two weeks, we committed to that.
"We probably made fewer changes than we originally thought, partly because of injuries to guys like Peter O'Mahony, Jonathan Sexton and Andrew Trimble, who we thought would be available by now.
"The great thing is that they will definitely be available for our next game and hopefully there will be a few headaches now in terms of selection."
Schmidt's confirmation that Sexton will return in time for Les Bleus will be the talk of the next two weeks, with Jackson hardly willing to just hand back the No.10 jersey to the incumbent.
"Jonathan has proven he can come straight back into the side and hit the ground running, and he's done that on other occasions," added Schmidt.
"I guess this window has allowed Paddy an opportunity to put his hand up and say, 'that shouldn't be an automatic choice'.
"It would be good for Jonathan to get some game time (for Leinster this week) but we have Wednesday, Thursday and Friday in camp so it's probably important to get some rhythm with us.
"I think Paddy's done a super job and it would be good to have them both in camp and to square them off, and see how they're travelling."
No matter who makes the 23 two weekends from now, it figures to be more of a contest than Saturday's stroll, with France, a side that beat Ireland in the competition 12 months ago, showing signs of improvement under Guy Noves.
With the squad not reassembling until Wednesday's camp in Monaghan, Schmidt was keen to let his players enjoy the rest of the weekend - as captain for the day Jamie Heaslip joked, many players had brought wives and girlfriends along in the spirit of Valentine's Day - but his own attention will quickly have switched track to the Championship's first visitors to Dublin.
"There's a fair few (French) guys you look at and think they're going to be a heap of a challenge," said Schmidt.
"As I said before it 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.
"It's just going to be really tight and combative. One team could get away but if they do I think it will be by small margins that they accumulate to break from the pack."
Ironic, perhaps, after a day in Rome when there was nothing small about the margins whatsoever.
ITALY: E Padovani; A Esposito, T Benvenuti, L McLean, G Venditti; C Canna, E Gori; A Lovotti, L Ghiraldini, L Cittadini, M Fuser, D van Shalkwyk, M Mbanda, S Favaro, S Parisse (Captain)
Replacements: O Gega (for Ghiraldini, 46), S Panico (for Lovotti, 63), D Chistolini (for Cittadini, 40), G Biagi (for Van Shalkwyk, 46), A Steyn (for Favaro, 56), G Bronzini (for Gori, 61), T Allan, M Campagnaro (for Benvenuti, 47).
IRELAND: R Kearney; K Earls, G Ringrose, R Henshaw, S Zebo; P Jackson, C Murray; C Healy, N Scannell, T Furlong; D Ryan, D Toner; CJ Stander, S O'Brien, J Heaslip (captain)
Replacements: J Tracy (for Scannell, 62) ,) J McGrath (for Healy, 51), J Ryan (for Furlong, 53), U Dillane (for Toner, 59), J van der Flier (for O'Brien, 68), K Marmion (for Murray, 68), I Keatley (for Zebo, 74), C Gilroy (for Henshaw, 47)
Man of the match: CJ Stander (IRE)
Referee: Glen Jackson (NZ)