by Phil Rice
After two emphatic wins Ireland face their first real World Cup test this week when they line out against Italy.
Ireland duly dispatched the amateur challenge presented by Romania last weekend. The first two matches have been beneficial warm-ups for the real tests that lie in wait. Given that Ireland knew they had these two matches at the start of the World Cup, it makes the playing of four tough warm-up matches even more mystifying. The only reason can be economic and the high risk of injury makes that unjustifiable.
Fortunately Ireland have come through all six matches remarkably unscathed. Only the unfortunate Tommy O’Donnell has been ruled out of the squad through injury. Rob Kearney, who made a brief appearance last Sunday, injured his hip while scoring a try, but he is hoping to be fit, as is the hamstring casualty Robbie Henshaw.
It says much for Ireland’s supporters that despite playing away from home, last Sunday’s match set a new record attendance for a World Cup match and over 90% of the crowd were Irish fans. Joe Schmidt commented “unbelievable support, I’ve never seen anything like it. The Fields of Athenry or the roar of the crowd certainly does help pick us up.”
A win this Sunday will ensure qualification for Ireland for the latter stages of the competition and banish Italy’s hopes. They have failed to qualify for the last eight in every World Cup to date and they will be desperate to beat Ireland. Their talisman and world class No.8 Sergio Parisse will almost certainly play even if he is not fully fit.
Ireland would do well to remember that Italy have a history of pulling off shock results. They beat France in the Six Nations in 2011 and 2013. Schmidt will leave nothing to chance and will be reminding the team of his mantra, “Don’t look beyond the current match.” When asked whether Italy would pose a serious threat to Ireland he replied: “Across the board they present a more formidable challenge than we’ve had so far and there’s always a risk when the pressure comes on and maybe we haven’t been put in that position yet.
“I’m sure that’s what Jacques Brunel (Italian Coach) is going to say to his players, to put us under that pressure and see how we respond.”
One of the strengths of this Irish side is the quality of the bench and their ability to change the course of a match if required. They have impact players such as Simon Zebo, Ian Madigan, Chris Henry, Sean Cronin, Eoin Reddin and either Cian Healy or Jack McGrath. That latter choice will give Schmidt a difficult decision.
A nice problem to have but in the interests of continuity and team morale he may plump for McGrath to start. He has been one of the success stories of this team over the past two Six Nations Championships. Cian Healy had a fine on Sunday and would make a dynamic impact off the bench.
The other area which may exercise Schmidt’s thoughts is the lack of penetration in midfield. Jared Payne is one of his favourite players but for all his strengths he is not a line breaker. Hopefully Henshaw will be available and he can provide the cutting edge required but in all the lead up matches to this stage, Keith Earls has been the most incisive player in the backline.
Concerns about Earls defence have been laid to rest as he has improved immensely in this area. With Tommy Bowe’s return to his old form at the weekend, Schmidt just may be tempted to play him and Dave Kearney on the wings and move Earls to the centre.
Loyalty has been the hallmark of Schmidt’s reign and he will probably stick with Payne, but the Coach is not afraid to make the difficult choice if the need arises. Payne will be aware of the threat to his place and if selected his performance this week will decide his short term future in the team.
Ireland ought to beat Italy but Parisse’s presence will make for a much improved performance from the Azurri. Many of Italy’s ageing stars will see this as their last opportunity to qualify for the latter stages of a World Cup. Schmidt will urge his team to take nothing for granted.
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