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Rugby World Cup: It's time to move up the gears and face Italian test

By Tony Ward

We've played them 24 times since the first meeting back in 1988. Four times the Italians have come out on top (three in the first four) and once in the Six Nations on that best-forgotten day in Rome two years ago.

I'm not great at the maths but by the law of averages that makes us vulnerable to the Azzurri one game in six.

On the plus side, that defeat at the Olympic Stadium apart, and no we are not dismissing it in the least, we have taken 19 of the last 20 meetings between blue and green.

Quite what relevance that record will have in the London Olympic Stadium tomorrow I'm not so sure, although the games on which we could and should draw relate to Dunedin and that World Cup win (36-6) in 2011 allied to the last two under Joe Schmidt in 2014 (46-7) and back in February (26-3).

The World Cup is a very different animal to the Six Nations. It requires a different tempo, a different mindset and a different strategy entirely. It is much more Mo Farah than Usain Bolt. It is a marathon not a sprint.

To that end, Schmidt has been meticulous in his preparation which has been aided and abetted by a draw that could hardly have been any kinder in its design.

Add to that just one major injury, to the unfortunate Tommy O'Donnell, to date and I think it's fair to say that, despite knocks to Rob Kearney, Keith Earls and Jared Payne, we are in pretty rude health as the competition begins to move to another level.

We're not quite at D-Day intensity just yet, that comes in Cardiff in eight days' time, but as the perfect lead-in to that Pool D decider we're looking good in almost every other way.

It could be argued, and with some substance, that we haven't yet been tested as, say, New Zealand have been against Argentina but in terms of putting the fundamentals in place and building gradual momentum against lesser opposition, we have done everything that could be expected in the circumstances.

The players are talking the talk as well as walking the walk and by that I mean there is an air of assured humility in their post-match and mid-week interviewing chores which reflects well on everyone concerned.

It is pot luck if you are wheeled out for interview but the one common thread has been of a camp united in ambition and strategy, irrespective of the competitive bubble from which they occasionally emerge.

That said, it has been pretty much plain sailing up to now with both the Canadians and Romanians brave to a fault but outclassed and eventually outmuscled. And while winning was essential in the Millennium and Wembley, the individual and collective performance was top-drawer in both matches.

So while the Italian obstacle sees the level of intensity and physicality move up a gear, the mantra governing performance still holds. It is essential that winning tomorrow, and with it qualification for the quarter-finals, is achieved by way of a third assured performance on the bounce.

That will determine the line-up to face the French. Get the Italian job done with conviction and for every weekend to come it's about getting over the line one point ahead of the opposition - irrespective of how that is achieved.

I'm not dismissing the Italians but if we are the World Cup-winning contenders we take ourselves to be, then tomorrow is another vital step along the way. Look after the Italian performance and the French showdown will look after itself. To that end, we field what is unquestionably our fittest and strongest line-up on current evidence. It is the right course of action.

Against Canada and Romania, there was a feeling of collective control and little need for panic.

Whether that was a reflection on the gulf in class or of a group that has moved on to that level we're not 100pc sure. The guaranteed Italian physicality - bear in mind they are out if they lose - should ask far more demanding questions.

I suspect the trend could be much like Rome in February but we hope to see more Irish control tomorrow. Enter Johnny Sexton.

Despite the minor tweaking due to knocks shipped against the Romanians, the objectives tomorrow is a win, first and foremost, but a good performance is vital too and, finally, whether by accident or design, coming across a midfield permutation that matches the unquestionable strength and back-up in almost every other area.

We are not yet ready to be considered among the favourites for overall success, but the overall impression is of a dark horse gathering momentum.

Take that to be ratified further tomorrow and by 20 at least.

Belfast Telegraph


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