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Italy v Ireland Six Nations: Irish must show passion to get back in the running

By Tony Ward

In one fell swoop, or more accurately 50 listless minutes, we lost the chance of a Grand Slam and Triple Crown in the opening game on the first day of the Six Nations.

As the draw would have it and on the back of the outcome in Murrayfield, we are the only one of the four competing for all three trophies out of the running in two with just a game gone. It was a high price to pay for what was a most 'un-Joe Schmidt-like' performance.

They say you reap what you sow and the Scots certainly did that when coming back in the final stretch to take a game that had appeared to slip away in the most fruitful period for Ireland after the break.

In that 30-minute period in which we scored 14 unanswered points, we looked what we know ourselves to be and that is the team of the autumn series.

Can we get back to where we left off against the Wallabies? Of course we can but there's a brutish physical and psychological battle to be fought in the Stadio Olimpico this afternoon.

Of course all the talk in the build-up has been of respect for Italian rugby, of them beating the Springboks and of course of Conor O'Shea. That is as it should be but behind closed doors there will be little doubt in any player's mind as to the needs of this day.

First and foremost comes a performance boiling with energy and physicality from the off. On that foundation - including a much more productive lineout - will come the result and with it the four tries that are imperative if we are to launch an attack on the Welsh and English come March, and no we're not removing the French from that equation.

Italian rugby still has a way to go if it is to compete consistently at the highest level and yet if there is one team against whom the mantra of earning the right to go wide applies it is the Azzurri. It is all too easy to follow the warped logic of going around the juggernaut that is the Italian pack rather than meeting its clear and obvious force head on first.

After what transpired in Edinburgh, you can take it as read that the emphasis this week - even with such a short turnaround - will have centred on being every bit as wild as the guaranteed hurricane coming our way.

Passion still has a very important part to play in rugby - witness our own performances against the All Blacks and more particularly the Wallabies in November.

Whatever the Italians might lack in class they are, like the Pumas, a passionate and proud rugby playing, sporting nation.

Losing eats into confidence and lest anyone forget we have lost two of our last three.

So today is about going back to basics, doing the simple things well and building the foundation from there. It is essential we get the lineout back to where it was as a consistent source of primary possession.

Cian Healy and Donnacha Ryan have been reinstated to do what each does best albeit in their different ways. Healy will be given the guts of an hour to do that door bashing role in his dynamic way. Rest assured Jack McGrath will be ready to take on that mantle when his green light shines as it will.

For Ryan the role is in getting down and getting dirty. He is made for days and games like this. He knows no other way.

There is the impact factor too, whereby Ultan Dillane will provide the added second row mobility when the need arises. Ryan will bring that mongrel in him to the fight with the onus on Devin Toner, Jamie Heaslip and Rory Best, seasoned campaigners with some 237 caps between them, to up their own level of performance from last week.

I have no issue whatsoever with Heaslip being reselected and for sure he, like so many others around him, owes the head coach one. My point in midweek questioning his reselection evolved as much around CJ Stander as the long established Ireland No.8.

We all know what damage Stander can do and what impact he can make as first ball carrier from the base of the scrum. That innate dynamism is more difficult to harvest from the side of the scrum where other factors, chiefly line of support, come into play.

We again have an exceptional back row in place but must do whatever it takes, with a simple switch between Heaslip and Stander in attacking scrum territory the most obvious adjustment, to utilise the powerful running Munster No.8 at his best. If nothing else it asks defensive questions of the opposition back row and halves.

If the Scots can slip a centre into the lineout with minimum fuss surely the slightest switch between 6 and 8 is worth a go.

Heaslip has many strings but busting the gainline thereby providing forward momentum a la Stander is not one. At half back Paddy Jackson stepped up to the plate again for Jonathan Sexton but Conor Murray was quiet to say the least.

It appeared as if the Glasgow experience and all that entailed had, despite all the pre-match denials, got inside his head. He has been the essence of consistency as a leader and must impose himself in that key respect again today.

Beyond that, Robbie Henshaw (one of the few Irish to shine) and Garry Ringrose are rightly retained. Best was bang on the money in midweek when he suggested the comparison between Ringrose and Brian O'Driscoll come to an end. Yes they have both worn 13 for the same school, province and country but they are very different.

Ringrose has the potential to make a similar impact but whereas O'Driscoll (like Stander) was dynamic and exceptionally explosive off the mark, Ringrose is more like another Blackrock, Leinster and Ireland centre great Brendan Mullin in terms of style.

The comparisons with O'Driscoll are doing him no favours. That said, he is a class act in the making and I expect him to fully express that opposite Michael Campagnaro today.

In the back three it's as you were, although I thought Schmidt might go for Tommy Bowe on the basis of an aerial bombardment early on. Instead, and despite three changes to the Italian pack, it is clear where the battle lines will be drawn.

Make no mistake, that right to run will be hard earned. The inclusion of Craig Gilroy, though somewhat surprising (and of course Josh van der Flier too), flags a scenic route very much on the agenda in the final straight presuming the heavy artillery have done their stuff.

It smacks of common sense given the nature of the opposition. The plan will be to engage Sergio Parisse defensively and on the basis of a repeat of the Murrayfield scrum allied to a big improvement out of touch, it's got to be a five-point mission. Take Ireland to return to winning ways with a maximum return.

Belfast Telegraph


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