Pressure pushing down on Ireland as Italians come to town
RBS Six Nations: Ireland v Italy
(Saturday, 1.30pm, Aviva Stadium, live on ITV1 and RTÉ2)
A CRIPPLING injury list. Three Six Nations games without a win. A manager under pressure. A familiar tale.
When Luciano Orquera helped kick Italy to a famous final-day victory in the Stadio Olimpico three years ago, it signalled the end of Declan Kidney’s increasingly embattled reign. That autumn, Joe Schmidt was parachuted in and breathed new life into a side that was playing well beneath its potential.
Back-to-back Six Nations delighted the country. Schmidt was hailed as the best coach in the world. The injury-hit World Cup was a write off. Remember the cheers, the relief, when he told The Late Late Show that he wasn’t hopping the Irish Sea, that he was staying put? A few months and four successive defeats later, the patience is starting to wear thin and the dissent is growing.
Every selection is widely questioned. None moreso than his team for this afternoon’s clash with an Italian side that, with defeat, would be all set to collect another wooden spoon.
Those hoping that the enforced changes made in Twickenham would become permanent were never likely to be pleasantly surprised. Rob Kearney’s ongoing hamstring trouble offered the opportunity to dispense with conservatism. But this week’s events have proven the head coach’s single-mindedness.
Jared Payne does return to the team but it’s Simon Zebo, who mixed the good with the bad against Wales, who is handed the number 15 shirt. Robbie Henshaw moves back to the inside with Payne restored outside him to renew their partnership.
The naked eye suggested that Henshaw’s performance against England was his most effective in an Ireland shirt. The statistics appear to back that up. The Connacht man carried 108 metres in Twickenham – more than double his previous best from seven Six Nations outings at inside centre.
Given the current style, Schmidt must at least have been impressed by Henshaw making ground - an average of 8 metres on every carry, as opposed to just over 3 metres on average since his debut against the Azzurri last year.
Payne is never going to offer the destructive element of a Stuart McCloskey, but it’s the New Zealander’s preference for his compatriot’s defensive strengths that tell the tale.
Henshaw made just half the number of tackles in Twickenham (8) that Payne had made two weeks earlier in Paris: “What we lack with Jared not in the midfield has been pretty evident to us, particularly on the edge with his defensive work,” said Schmidt during the week.
“He did a fantastic job against France, so we are looking for him to again control our defensive line in the frontline. If we take him out of there it's something else we have to try to find coverage for."
Choosing Fergus McFadden on the bench ahead of McCloskey, who isn’t included in the 23, is harder to fathom given the versatility in Ireland’s starting backline. Zebo, Payne, Henshaw and Keith Earls all have the ability to move around.
Elsewhere, Ultan Dillane’s line-breaking debut cameo encouraged calls for a start for him, but Schmidt has held him in reserve as Donnacha Ryan and Devin Toner continue in the second row.
“I've been coaching professionally now for 15 years and I've seen a lot of young players really hampered by being thrust into an environment they are not ready for.
“They can lose their confidence and sometimes they don't quite come back in the same way. So it's just about getting to know the players and trying to have a balance of opportunity and, at the same time, experience,” said the Ireland boss.
He has also been forced to defend leaving Paddy Jackson back in Belfast for another week. The in-form Ulster man has again been overlooked for Ian Madigan. It’s far from an unfamiliar tale at this stage.
“Johnny Sexton hasn't missed a kick at goal, Ian Madigan has a phenomenal strike rate, and that's one of the aspects.
“Another aspect is Ian's versatility as opposed to Paddy, who is mostly a 10. He's a super young player and I think he will grow into a player that will accumulate a number of caps,” said Schmidt.
It needed Johnny Sexton to take the bull by the horns in London to finally spark some life into the Irish attack. It was, despite the result, comfortably their best performance of the season. A repeat would surely be good enough to dismantle the Italians, who make four changes from the side that lost to Scotland.
Davide Giazzon will make his first start at hooker in place of injured captain Leonardo Ghiraldini. Zebre’s half-back pairing of Guglielmo Palazzani and Edoardo Padovani will make their first international start together.
George Fabio Biagi is introduced in the second row, with Marco Fuser and Edoardo Gori out injured and Kelly Haimona dropped to the bench. Martin Castrogiovanni’s suspension allows inspirational number 8 Sergio Parisse to go level with him on 118 international caps.
As always with the Italians, the longer Ireland spend in their half, the more gaps will appear in the final 20 minutes. Scotland - and in particular Stuart Hogg - were rewarded for their invention in attack two weeks ago. Italy, for all their efforts, looked decidedly short in too many areas.
The fact that the Scots pushed their scrum around the place will be of particular concern. If they continue in that vain, and Ireland can sort out their set-piece woes inside the opposition 22’, then it should be ultimately comfortable for the hosts.
Ireland: S Zebo; A Trimble, J Payne, R Henshaw, K Earls; J Sexton, C Murray; J McGrath, R Best, M Ross; D Ryan, D Toner; CJ Stander, J van der Flier, J Heaslip; Replacements: S Cronin, F Bealham, N White, U Dillane, R Ruddock, K Marmion, I Madigan, F McFadden
Italy: D Odiete; L Sarto, M Campagnaro, G Garcia, M Bellini; E Padovani, G Palazzani; A Lovotti, D Giazzon, L Cittadini; G Biagi, M Fuser; F Minton, A Zanni, S Parisse; Replacements: O Fabiani, M Zanusso, D Chistolini, Q Geldenhuys, A Steyn, A Lucchese, K Haimona, L McLean