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Rugby World Cup: Jared Payne's absence has highlighted his pivotal role in bid for Ireland success

By Tony Ward

Yes, it was a wake-up call, a reality check, and, yes, we did win ugly. Did we deserve to come out on top against Italy on Sunday? Maybe on balance just about, but had Peter O'Mahony not pulled off the try-saving tackle that he did, momentum would have been reflected on the scoreboard and with it the outcome in the final quarter might well have gone the other way.

It wasn't what we expected but it was what Ireland needed. On the basis of being only as good as your last game, any complacency that might have been building in the camp has been well and truly banished.

A tough week's graft lies ahead but be assured of one thing: the process of self-assessment and critical analysis is already well under way. As a practical and psychological leveller, this Italian job could prove a blessing in disguise.

We were back playing tier-one rugby, albeit against the weakest of the established 10 teams in that category (Six Nations and Rugby Championship).

Just as we never thought ourselves world-beaters after Canada and Romania, neither are we there to make up the quarter-final numbers now. It was a bad performance littered with errors at the Olympic Stadium but we managed to come out on top.

I expected it to be far more convincing. All the pre-match evidence suggested an Italian squad that was suffering from a confidence crisis against an Irish equivalent gathering momentum. But such is the psychological beauty of sport and of rugby in particular.

Joe Schmidt, Les Kiss and Simon Easterby will leave nothing to chance in a radical assessment of what needs to change ahead of Sunday's massive encounter against the French. Beating the French at the Millennium Stadium is paramount to our overall aspirations at this World Cup.

And while obviously I accept the principle of the head coach's post-match assessment - "when you make mistakes and concede penalties, it flattens the performance and you can't get into any sort of rhythm" - equally forcing penalties sparks performance and therein lay the difference in mindset.

With respect to Jerome Garces, who I felt did an even-handed job, the penalty count mounted from pressure. The Italians, inspired by Sergio Parisse's mere presence, brought a level of competitive intensity we normally associate with a Schmidt team.

Penalties don't just happen by chance, they come on the back of pressure. Our line speed in defence was slow, especially off static scrums in the opening half when ground was conceded so much more easily than normal under Schmidt.

Keith Earls gave it his best and scored a record-breaking try but for those Jared Payne critics, the evidence of his absence to Ireland's communication and organisation was there for all to see.

Payne is to Ireland what Conrad Smith is to New Zealand. Neither are world-class talents relative to the many greats in the position that have gone before but in terms of presence - and bear in mind Ireland's adopted Kiwi is still a relative rookie at this level - the loss of the converted Ulster full-back on Sunday was massive.

I worry in terms of the bigger picture and our midfield innovation for the knockout stages but for the Mathieu Bastareaud/Wesley Fofana challenge immediately ahead, the Payne/Robbie Henshaw combination looks set in stone.

Payne is to the backs what Jamie Heaslip is to the pack. An integral cog that's best appreciated when he's not there.

Despite the poor collective display, there were still some individual stand-outs on Sunday. Specifically Iain Henderson, O'Mahony and Rory Best in that order. Devin Toner and Sean Cronin did well when they came on although Henderson and Best, much like the centre pairing, will be automatic names on the team sheet.

The criticism of over-kicking - specifically levelled at Conor Murray - carries some weight although with Tommy Bowe in situ on the right, it is a potent weapon that we should not shy away from employing.

Schmidt's biggest dilemma, apart from deciding which loosehead prop starts, is the composition of his back three.

On the assumption Rob Kearney is fit, the temptation will be to run with Bowe (who did well in the bread and butter stuff against Italy) on the right with one from Dave Kearney, Earls and Simon Zebo on the left. All three have been consistently good over the past six weeks.

On pure form you would say Kearney the younger on the right with Earls on the left and Jack McGrath to start at No 1.

However, the law of 'horses for courses' now enters the equation as we move into 'one point ahead' phase. It's about to get really serious.

Belfast Telegraph


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