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Paris will mean nothing if we slip up against Azzurri

 

By Alan Quinlan

The manner of last weekend's victory, the inaccuracies as much as the character-building finish, should be ringing alarm bells for Italy.

It was a tremendous win considering the circumstances and Ireland's atrocious record in Paris, but Joe Schmidt will have had plenty of ammunition to keep his players on edge.

Mental preparation for Italy can be tricky but Schmidt will have been drilling home a number of messages this week to quash any risk of complacency.

Ireland were blunt in attack at times at the Stade de France and Schmidt is sending a message by sticking with the same backline and bringing Jordan Larmour on to the bench.

Spots are still up for grabs and the threat of being dropped remains one of the most powerful methods of motivation.

It will not be going unnoticed that Ireland have been struggling to score tries against their leading Six Nations rivals, despite often enjoying large spells of dominance.

Ireland have now scored just six tries in a combined 10 Six Nations outings against France, Wales and England and bear in mind the Championship-winning efforts of 2015 are a part of that concerning sequence.

Our attack has proven time and again, outside of the Six Nations window, that it can compete in shoot-outs with the best teams in the world, yet it has struggled to find that fluency in the spring.

The nature of the Six Nations, being cup rugby, ensures that most games are tight and short on opportunities to really cut loose.

Schmidt, and of course Warren Gatland, favour a direct approach and while it might not please the eyes of the purists, it is generally effective and should continue to be a core part of our game plan.

But if we can get our backline firing too, it adds a completely different dimension.

If Ireland are to be realistic about winning this year's Championship they need to be more clinical in attack, and there is no better fixture than Italy at home.

I wouldn't like to see Ireland having to chase a game against Wales or England without having shown the ruthlessness in attack required to win tight Test matches.

Schmidt has sent a message to his players behind the scrum and he has been equally astute in his selections in the pack.

Devin Toner and Jack McGrath will be ravenous after watching most of last weekend's game from the bench.

Both will feel aggrieved not to have made the starting XV in Paris and will be looking to put themselves in contention.

Picking Dan Leavy and Jack Conan in the back-row for their first Six Nations starts also makes sense; Leavy because he is the best available option at No.7 right now, while Conan deserves another chance.

Both men will earn just their sixth caps this afternoon but neither is short on big-game experience.

They will find comfort in having Leinster team-mates McGrath, Toner and Tadhg Furlong for company.

They will know their roles inside out, and if they start to lose focus or fall below what is expected from Schmidt, you can be sure his lieutenant at No.10 will let them know.

Johnny Sexton said a couple of years ago that it doesn't matter how many changes are made, the guys who come in need to know their role.

How Ireland approach today's game tactically will also be particularly interesting.

There are a few areas that need improvement from last week, such as the kicking game and breakdown work, while I would also like to see them get danger men Keith Earls and Jacob Stockdale on the ball more.

We have two of the best tactical kickers in the game in Sexton and Conor Murray, but I think they got caught between trying to kick and trying to attack in Paris.

There were also a few lapses in concentration around the breakdown. It's only 11 months since Wales absolutely destroyed Ireland at the breakdown and it's an area that Schmidt's side really need to get right.

I'd also like to see us focus on our attacking maul. It was an extremely effective weapon a couple of years ago and we just haven't seen enough of it of late.

It's a great way to score tries and to drain the opposition.

Today Ireland need to be dominant up front before they can expect to throw the ball around and score tries. A great way of doing that would be to get the maul working.

To use Earls and Stockdale to their most devastating effect, we need to be solid at the set-piece and efficient at the breakdown.

Hopefully both of our wingers will get a chance to show what they can do.

If they get enough opportunities, it could be a long day for Conor O'Shea's visitors.

Belfast Telegraph

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