Ireland starting the 2017 Six Nations with consecutive away trips to Edinburgh and Rome is a bit like the reformed Beatles opening sets with Glass Onion and Yellow Submarine. These fixtures do not inspire fervour or nostalgia in the hearts of Irish rugby fans. We can only imagine how the players feel. For 40 minutes last week, Ireland struggled with the step down in class between the southern hemisphere’s finest and plucky Scotland. Similarly, we don’t think Ireland will be chuffed to see the Italian pack trodding towards the scrum in a half-empty Stadio Olimpico on a sodden late winter Roman afternoon.
None of it has the allure of Soldier Field in November when history is about to be made.
The spoils of the Murrayfield mishap are few but at least Ireland have clarity from here on in. Ireland knows it must win every game it plays. And they know they must beat Italy by scoring four tries. Chances of a 2017 Championship are slim after Saturday’s horror show in Edinburgh, even if the bookies charitably still have Ireland as Six Nations second-favourites. And though many have predicted an Irish backlash, there’s still every reason to think Italy will make life hell for Ireland as long as they can physically stand to.
The question remains do Ireland have the players and the system to unlock a dogged defensive unit. It was clear to the world that Ireland upped its performance levels in the second half against Scotland, but so many try opportunities were spurned along the way. A few hidings in the video sessions will certainly have Irish players inspired - and no doubt the bus driver will be a good half hour early this week - but if Ireland struggle at lineout again, and the Italian scrum is its solid self, bigger questions linger. Do Ireland possess the ability to go wide, to offload and hunt for those vital tries? They more often than not didn't last weekend.
Ireland had the opportunity to go wide and create an overlap but every pass was shipped before the carrier drew their defender. Frustrating.
— Alex Shaw (@alexshawsport) February 3, 2017
The Scotland match was Ireland’s worst defensive performance of the Andy Farrell era. We won’t really know whether Ireland’s woeful defense at the start and the end of the game was a one-off or part of a more systemic problem that exists when Ireland play without Jared Payne and Johnny Sexton. Italy’s limited backs will not test Ireland.
Ireland continue their average of three tries conceded a game under Andy Farrell. Their defence has not been very good today. Could get ugly
— Rúaidhrí O'Connor (@RuaidhriOC) February 4, 2017
Saturday, however, will tell us a lot more about Ireland’s attacking capabilities. Scotland, to borrow the Tomas Ó Sé phrase, ‘hammered the hammer’ in targeting Ireland’s ball-carrying backrows. Heaslip and Stander might have both had their worst games in Ireland shirts in Murrayfield. It was presumed Garry Ringrose was ready for this step-up in level, but the Leinster centre was anonymous last week. If Ireland are again solely reliant upon entirely upon Rob Kearney and the in-form Keith Earls for attacking derring-do, four tries might be hard to reach.
Luckily for Ireland, Italy seem to be faltering, which is extraordinary after only one week of the Six Nations.
Have Italy have been much improved under O’Shea? It depends on which game you’ve watched. Sometimes it depends on which part of the game you’ve watched. This is a team that can beat South Africa in one week and lose to Tonga the next. Italy seemed to have Wales rocked after a convincing (if dour) 40 minutes Sunday. But Italy were so disappointing in the second half. They’d expended all their energy in the first half and were easily pushed aside by Wales, as if it was the last week of the competition.
O’Shea had a cut at the referees after the match, clearly with an eye to influencing Glen Jackson and his crew this weekend. The terrifying reality for O’Shea is that Italian rugby is going backwards. The Azzurri have not won in Rome since they beat France for the first time in 2013. With Georgia clamouring for their seat at the table of European Rugby’s heavy hitters, O’Shea and Italy increasingly have to justify their place in the Six Nations.The coach has said all the right things about being judged on Italy’s results in 10 years time but we have entered a critical moment. Results are needed now.
"Rugby as a game needs Italy to prosper"
Irishman Conor O'Shea on his experiences of managing the Italian national team: pic.twitter.com/7snetj4oIJ
— BBC 5 Live Sport (@5liveSport) January 30, 2017
John Feehan Six Nations CEO was speaking candidly this week when he said: 'Have Italy progressed as much as we'd like? Probably not," he said.
Surely for Italy the true fear is not Georgia overtaking them but the other Five Nations closing the door on the so-called weaker countries for good.
All of which makes O’Shea’s selection for Ireland’s visit intriguing. He has made four changes but none of them indicate that O’Shea has picked a team to do a Scotland on Ireland. He has retained the services of his best forward Michele Campagnaro on the bench, even though Campagnaro has six tries in his last three games for Exeter.
On Form 💨
Here's one of the 6️⃣ tries Michele Campagnaro has scored in his last 3️⃣ games. Time to add to that tally off the bench today? pic.twitter.com/ZswBnzd7b3
— Heineken Champions Cup (@ChampionsCup) February 5, 2017
Meanwhile, Luke McLean will somehow win his 86th cap Saturday. We can presume that O’Shea will have Italy kicking early and often. It feels like damage limitation.
This decade, Ireland have not been putting up big scores against Italy away from home. Bar the World Cup win in Rotago in 2011, none of our wins outside of Dublin would have earned us a bonus point. There is a template for an Ireland away win against Italy. We saw it two years ago: a spirited, ugly, unexpectedly close game until the fourth quarter, when the dam broke. Ian Keatley, you may remember, wore Ireland’s 10 shirt that day. It was the first victory in a Championship-winning campaign that culminated underneath the floodlights of Murrayfield.
Ireland will need to do more than just suffocate Italy this time. They must attack. The true tests lie in wait, but Ireland face a real challenge Saturday: can we overcome our own limitations when playing poor opposition? Blitzing the Italians in Rome was a common occurrence last decade. Ireland will need its scoring boots on Saturday or else this Six Nations will be derailed before they get to the fun stuff.