Saturday afternoon represents an opportunity for Italy and Ireland to keep alive their slim championship chances. For Italy, a gritty yet ultimately heavy defeat against the Welsh indicates that it could be a tough afternoon for an Ireland side who were put to the sword by Scotland in Murrayfield. Hawkeye Sidekick looks at the fixture and wonders if risk and fear will play heavily on both sides in Rome.
Italy – a distinct work in progress under O’Shea
Conor O’Shea has arrived as the new Italian head coach. His leadership skills and ability to take a team who are at rock bottom (look at his Harlequins stint where the club were reeling from the bloodgate scandal) and build confidence and momentum to boot. O’Shea has yet publicly that this is a work in progress project; an accurate assessment and this season is a year where the Irish man will run the rule over the existing squad and see if there are any homegrown players ready to step up to the next level.
I feel for O’Shea in many respectives; a turgid domestic professional rugby environment where both Treviso and Zebre have massively struggled in Pro 12 and European Cup competition. The nucleus of the national squad is based on players representing these clubs. The saving grace has being the mercurial Parisse and Favaro who has made an excellent impact with Glasgow Warriors. Both players plying their trade away from Italy may be the tonic for the national team to prosper going forward; Italian players immersing themselves in clubs with a winning culture and learning how to execute in pressurized scenarios.
The Italian side have a reputation for throwing the tantrum when decisions go against them; it manifested last weekend with JP Doyle’s penalty count against the hosts particularly at scrum time. Italy argued their case but match officiating crews are closely scrutinizing their set piece. The scrum looked shaky at times last Sunday and with an impressive Ireland front three looming large, it could be a long afternoon.
O’Shea is going to look at the lineout and breakdown to gain parity in this contest. Parisse in particular will be a key figure; driving his back row colleagues with ball carries and slowing down Ireland ball. The options past the half-backs are limited unfortunately; no significant evidence that the Italy back line can create behind the game line, they rely heavily on their pack getting on the front foot. It is a situation which needs to change for O’Shea and Italy to progress.
A win against South Africa last November should have being the springboard for further confidence but it smashed only a week later when Tonga took the game to the Azzuri in the pack, won the battle upfront and sneaked a shock win. One step forward, two steps back is the theme for Italy at the moment. They have an excellent head coach but it is going to take time for the group to adjust to O’Shea’s coaching style and demands. The silly mistakes and lapses will be prevalent on Saturday but whether Ireland can avail of these gifts will be a different story.
Expansive Ireland or Low Risk Ireland?
Ireland media hordes have not given Scotland enough credit for last weekend. They analyzed Ireland’s game plan and formulated a strategy full of work rate and expansive attacking lines out on the wings to expose Ireland’s rigid defensive structures. It is a reality check for Schmidt, coaching staff and players. The team selection was unbalanced particularly in the back row where Ireland had three prolific ball carriers but no player with the pace to compete at the breakdown like van Der Flier. The Ireland camp have being quick to state that it was a bad day at the office but there were issues which cannot be thrown away as an one off.
Defensive structures seriously broke down last weekend. Ringrose at thirteen was struggling to make defensive reads all game; some inaccuracy inside of the Leinster player but his decision making to make a defensive play was non-existent at times particularly the first Scotland try. Payne’s absence has being massive on the defensive side of the ball. His communication traits to tell colleagues where to position themselves during defensive duties was sorely missed last weekend. Henshaw and Ringrose are superb talents with ball in hand but their defensive partnership needs to improve and expect Italy to perhaps to execute a couple of missed passes to test this unit early doors.
The second issue was the lineout and the lack of options at two and three. Best struggled for a consistent second option last weekend increased by the absence of Peter O’Mahoney whose assured lineout jumping has being on show with the province this season. Toner was the only viable option from the lineout and Scotland were quick to read and setup defensive off this.
The third issue has being an alarming distinct lack of squad depth at half-back. No genuine game minutes for players behind Murray in the November internationals has created a problem for management; when the game is in the melting pot and freshness is required at scrum-half, who can they trust? Marmion is a quality talent but with precious little minutes under his belt with Ireland, coaches felt the need to keep Murray on the pitch.
The ten position as well is a point of conjecture. This should be a period where Paddy Jackson stakes the claim to be the first choice number ten but the performance last weekend fell short; lack of game management and lapses in defensive play plighted his performance but was not helped by slow ball from Murray caused by poor pack ball presentation. Carbery could be fast tracked to the squad as soon as the French game so it is imperative for Jackson to produce an assured performance this weekend or the media vultures will be looking for changes.
The Ireland pack needs to be more cohesive this weekend. The scrum was a source of encouragement last weekend and with an Italian front row who are falling foul of officiating crews in recent internationals, there is a big opportunity to build a platform from this set piece. McGrath, Best and Furlong need to lead by example and with Healy, Bealham and Scannell in reserve, it is an unit with much promise. The second row partnership last week lost their battle with the Gray brothers. Henderson’s form should improve this weekend and hopefully a reliable lineout option. The back row has being mentioned in this blog posting. Van der Flier surely will be in the first fifteen, his pace and ability in the breakdown would provide balance to an unit with much upside.
It is a game where Joe Schmidt and team needs to step up and produce a performance full of drive and hopefully expansive plays when the Italian pack get tired and platform is sufficiently built. I am expecting a better clinical Ireland performance with a bonus point secured. Italy will try hard but their limitations were exposed last weekend and with a day less to prepare, Ireland have a golden chance to redeem themselves.
Ireland Selection (Hawkeye Sidekick)
Zebo, Earls, Ringrose, Henshaw, O’Halloran, Jackson, Murray, Heaslip, Van Der Flier, Stander, Henderson, Toner, Furlong, Best, McGrath