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Captain Rory Best puts onus on Ireland's players to perform against Italy

Rory Best has admitted Ireland's players "haven't delivered on promises" as he attempted to ease pressure on boss Joe Schmidt before Saturday's critical clash with Italy.

Captain Best insisted Ireland's squad must shoulder the burden after the reigning RBS 6 Nations champions slipped to three matches without a win in this year's tournament.

Head coach Schmidt defended his full-strength team selection as not "overly conservative" on Thursday, before Best attempted to shift focus away from the coaching team.

Uncapped prop Finlay Bealham has replaced hamstring injury victim Cian Healy on Ireland's bench for Saturday's Dublin clash, with hooker Best challenging his side to lift scrutiny on Schmidt with a first victory since the autumn's World Cup.

"As a player group we don't feel we need to win the game to assert the authority there," said Best, when asked if victory over Italy would reaffirm boss Schmidt's coaching quality.

"And when you're in this environment you realise how well prepared we are.

"I've been around a few coaching set-ups with Ulster and Ireland and this is one of the best coaching set-ups I've been involved in with any team.

"Obviously everyone picks stuff apart on results, but we know the preparation we're getting. And we know that at times as players we haven't delivered on promises that we make to each other during the week.

"So from that point of view a result would go a long way to helping everyone in terms of really bedding us into international rugby.

"But in terms of the coaching ticket, it's always nice to get a win and that's ultimately what we're here to do."

Ireland have not slumped to five games without a win since 2012, and have only ever lost to Italy once in Dublin, in 1997.

Historic dominance over the Azzurri has not stopped head coach Schmidt from fielding the strongest starting line-up available however, with the former Leinster boss defending that selection on Thursday.

Schmidt insisted Ireland had never considered fielding fit-again Jared Payne at full-back in a bid to hand powerhouse centre Stuart McCloskey another chance to impress in midfield.

Schmidt falling back on Payne's qualities as defensive captain at outside centre underscores Ireland's desperation for victory, after an underwhelming Six Nations campaign so far.

Ireland battled for a 16-16 draw with Wales in Dublin, only to slip to defeat to France in Paris and to England at Twickenham.

Now Schmidt's men are fighting to preserve their pride and clamber to a mid-table finish, with Scotland travelling to Dublin for the final round of fixtures on Saturday week.

Ulster hooker Best insisted Schmidt's squad can rediscover "the real Ireland" against Italy this weekend, despite warning against taking the Azzurri lightly.

"They will be thinking this is their big opportunity to get a scalp, and that in itself produces extra pressure on us," said Best. "But I'm very sure the boys will stand up tomorrow.

"There has been a bit of a steep learning curve for some players. People are starting to get the idea of what the difference of this group has been in the past.

"Call it the real Ireland, call it whatever you want, but they are the standards we expect to live by and play by, and we haven't reached them.

"And that's where we hope to get to tomorrow."

Ireland's assistant coach Simon Easterby revealed British and Irish Lions prop Healy suffered a "mild hamstring strain" in Thursday's training session.

The 28-year-old underwent scans before being ruled out, but Ireland hope the Leinster star could yet be ready for the final Six Nations clash against Scotland.

Canberra-born front-rower Bealham qualifies for Ireland through his grandmother, who hails from Enniskillen.

"It's a great opportunity for Finlay to get a taste of Test match rugby," said Easterby.

"He's impressed everyone, he's got down to his hard work, stuck at his job and now he's got an opportunity to show what he can do at the highest level."


From Belfast Telegraph