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Italy v Ireland Six Nations: Schmidt won't make drastic changes, but players owe him

By Tony Ward

Let's cut to the chase. For the guts of 40 minutes in Murrayfield on Saturday, we were awful. The final flurry wasn't too hot either, but in between we got a glimpse of what this squad is capable of producing.

Quite why we were so poor and lethargic I'm not sure even the players know, but for whatever reason we were short on energy, slow in line speed, limp at the breakdown and as a consequence squeezed tight down the tram lines.

That is not the fault of the wings, but a general malaise that like an accordion squeezes from outside to in. Credit the Scots, too, for in Stuart Hogg, Sean Maitland and Tommy Seymour they have at this point in time (add Huw Jones as well) three-quarters well capable of exploiting whatever space is on offer.

Hogg is a class act with cutting pace and the type of change in direction when hitting the line for which we yearn. Rob Kearney did well in difficult circumstances, but his strength now is in the air.

From an Irish perspective the scrum was good, the lineout was not and the contest at the breakdown was at best mixed. The Scots thrived and we were lucky not to have conceded the bonus point for tries scored by the interval. The third quarter took us back to the autumn, but for at least 50 of the 80 minutes we were out of sorts.

That is just not good enough from a team with genuine aspirations of taking a third Championship in four years. We are still title contenders, it is catch-up from here, starting in Rome on Saturday.

On an individual level there were solid performances from Tadhg Furlong, CJ Stander, Sean O'Brien, Robbie Henshaw and Paddy Jackson. Jackson made another significant statement given the circumstances.

Beyond that I am struggling, although Cian Healy did well when he came on.

It was by some way the most incoherent team performance we have witnessed under Joe Schmidt. Given the quick turnaround, I expect changes to be minimal - with an unspoken emphasis on 'you owe me one'.

There will be no talk of bonus points, for public consumption at least, but rest assured that behind closed doors it will be very much on the agenda.

It has to be. If there is to be change, then I expect it to be in the second row, possibly back-row and the back three. Garry Ringrose did not have a comfortable outing, but I think it would do more harm than good to break up the Leinster pairing.

For Iain Henderson it was a disappointing afternoon, his try apart. The case for Donnacha Ryan is great. It will add to the conundrum, but sometimes needs must.

In the back row a very strong case could be made for shifting Stander to the middle and bringing in Josh van der Flier at openside, with O'Brien switching to the blind. I base that on the assumption that Peter O'Mahony is still ruled out through injury.

Jamie Heaslip didn't have a bad game, but the impact of Stander from the No.8 position given such a solid scrum is obvious. It would be a massive call by Schmidt, but I expect his vice-captain to be left in situ.

Van der Flier will continue as the impact back-row replacement, with a likely call between Henderson and Ultan Dillane for reserve lock.

Behind the scrum Conor Murray will be at nine, with Jackson again his partner at 10, thereby giving Jonathan Sexton another fortnight to recover.

Henshaw and Ringrose should be the centre pairing, but there are options pending fitness and balance between Kearney, Simon Zebo, Tiernan O'Halloran, Andrew Trimble, Tommy Bowe and Keith Earls in the back three. Zebo has been outstanding for Munster in the last line, but is the only natural left-sided player available. If fit, Trimble can join Bowe to challenge Earls for the right-wing berth.

At full-back, the gap between Kearney and O'Halloran is marginal. On balance, the good outweighed the bad for Kearney, although he was outshone by his opposite number.

The other aspect I fail to grasp is why, when we are chasing the game in the final minutes, our most in-form player kicks away possession. At best a Murray box kick makes for a 50/50 chance of regaining the ball, so why take that risk?

My admiration for the Ireland scrum-half and his temperament needs no elaboration, but this is not the first time I have witnessed slavish adherence to what seems to be a brain-dead tactic when chasing points against the clock.

A potentially very good team did not become a bad one in Edinburgh and if players were deemed to be the best in their positions a week ago, then only where the calls were marginal do I expect tinkering now.

For now the panic buttons will be left on hold. On the basis that those unfit for selection last week are given another fortnight, I anticipate a team along the following lines:

Starting: R Kearney (Leinster); T Bowe (Ulster), G Ringrose (Leinster), R Henshaw (Leinster), S Zebo (Munster); P Jackson (Ulster), C Murray (Munster); J McGrath (Leinster), R Best, Captain, (Ulster), T Furlong (Leinster); D Ryan (Munster), D Toner (Leinster); CJ Stander (Munster), S O'Brien (Leinster) and J Heaslip (Leinster).

Replacements: N Scannell (Munster), C Healy (Leinster), J Ryan (Munster), U Dillane (Connacht)/I Henderson (Ulster), J van der Flier (Leinster), K Marmion (Connacht), I Keatley (Munster), K Earls (Munster).

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