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Schmidt must get right balance as he aims to gel combinations while keeping key players fresh

 

By Ruaidhri O'Connor

After their 41 steps to drop goal heaven on Saturday, Ireland have been brought back down to earth in the Carton House review room and their focus now is firmly on Italy's visit to the Aviva Stadium on Saturday.

The warm glow of the celebrations of Johnny Sexton's winning kick were replaced by a Kildare morning so cold that the training pitch was deemed unplayable and they were forced to flip their schedule on its head.

By the time the pitch had thawed out, they had picked through the last of the analysis of Paris and the middling performance that was saved by a big moment at the end.

Tomorrow, they return for the last proper training session after which Joe Schmidt will name his team.

The coach has much to consider as he weighs up whether to make changes for the second round.

There were signs that Ireland need time together in order to build cohesion in their attacking game, while England and Wales both secured big bonus-point wins last weekend which puts pressure on Schmidt's side to build a score to keep pace in case the tournament goes to the wire.

Conversely, a clash with an Italian side coming off the back of a six-day turnaround represents the only chance the New Zealander has to experiment in this year's tournament with home games against Wales and Scotland coming up before the grand finale against England in Twickenham.

Ireland scored nine tries in each of their last two meetings with the Azzurri and would expect to beat Conor O'Shea's men comfortably if they perform to their best this weekend.

"Every Six Nations game is one you have to win so it is a little bit different than November," assistant coach Richie Murphy said yesterday.

"There is an opportunity to make changes and we have such a strong squad that we feel comfortable and confident with the other guys in there; it'll be one that we will look at as a coaching group and see where we go for this week."

So there is scope for change, but Schmidt's job is to find the right balance.

Back-three

The impression Murphy gave yesterday was that Johnny Sexton will play, but there is a lingering feeling that Schmidt may look to get Joey Carbery involved to some degree and might be tempted to deploy the youngster at full-back.

Eyebrows were raised when the Athy native came off the bench for Leinster at full-back in Montpelier on his return from injury, but it would make far more sense if Ireland were looking at him as an option.

Rob Kearney went well in Paris, but Carbery would give Ireland a second distributor that could help unlock the Italians.

There is a need to get minutes into Carbery and a shift in position could help him in that regard.

There is a feeling that Jordan Larmour could be unleashed at some stage this weekend. The talk from the training field is that he has been tearing it up, while Jacob Stockdale's performance last weekend makes him slightly vulnerable.

Fergus McFadden is also in excellent form and capable of forcing his way into the side after a big impact in Paris.

Midfield and half-backs

This is a combination that needs time together to gel in order to get Ireland's attacking game going.

Although Carbery needs time on the pitch, so too does Sexton to link with those around him, while Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw have work to do when it comes to breaking down opponents.

The more time Ireland's half-backs and midfield get together, the better for their title prospects.

Front-row

Schmidt might look to freshen things up by bringing Jack McGrath in for Cian Healy in the front-row given how little separates the two.

Although Sean Cronin went well in Paris, Ulster's Rob Herring could be in with a shout of a recall onto the bench as the battle between them is said to be close, while Andrew Porter could push John Ryan close to the bench spot.

Back five of the scrum

The head coach may look to ease the burden on James Ryan, who dealt with the step up in class well last weekend.

Ryan was superb, but Ireland will be wary of over-exposing him to the rigours of Test rugby too frequently and may look to rotate Devin Toner into the side alongside Iain Henderson.

In the back-row, Dan Leavy looks set to take Josh van der Flier's place in the No.7 jersey alongside Peter O'Mahony and CJ Stander, with Jordi Murphy looking like the better bench option than Jack Conan given his flexibility.

However, Schmidt could look to get Conan's ball-carrying in by shifting CJ Stander to the blindside and resting O'Mahony, who put in a huge shift in Paris and has a proven capacity to make a big impact off the bench.

It seems more likely that he'll stick with O'Mahony and Stander from the start, but it would be no surprise if the coach had something up his sleeve to cause a selection stir this week.

Belfast Telegraph

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