After three brave performances Ireland have only one Championship point to show for their efforts, Joe Schmidt knows that only victory will be acceptable this week.
By Phil Rice
While there have definitely been some positives to glean from the first three matches in this years Six Nations, Ireland will entertain Italy at the Aviva this weekend knowing that winning will be the only priority.
Joe Schmidt said after the English match that he intends to continue with the new caps he introduced for that match.
This may mean that Ultan Dillane, who made such a favourable impression during his 15 minute cameo, will start the match in the second-row alongside Devin Toner.
Italy have a big abrasive pack and we will need to match their physicality. Ireland’s defence has been exceptional during the first three matches and while this will be necessary again, there needs to be a more positive attacking strategy.
There was a marked difference in the team’s approach in the second half against England and Ireland were unlucky not to score more than the one try.
There needs to be more emphasis on close support and off-loading in the tackle. In all three games we have made a number of line breaks but in almost all cases there was no continuity to the movement.
Even during the past two successful seasons there has been very little off-loading or capitalising on line breaks.
If Stuart McCloskey plays again at inside centre we must take advantage of his ability to break the tackle and off-load to supporting players.
Scotland comfortably beat Italy by playing at a fast tempo and by supporting closely and off-loading.
Italy couldn’t cope with the waves of attacks and Scotland capitalised. Ireland are capable of doing this at least as well as Scotland and it is the blue print to beat Italy. If you get bogged down in a forward battle you are playing into their hands.
It is important that Ireland finish the Championship on a high note and winning the two remaining games will raise morale before the three match series away to South Africa in June.
This is an important time for Schmidt to develop a game plan which suits this team.
It is clear from our World Cup experiences that a narrow attack with a high kicking ratio will not cut the mustard against the Southern Hemisphere countries. We need to vary our attack and be prepared to utilise our wide players.
Using Robbie Henshaw in a wider position against England was much more productive than the more pedestrian Jared Payne. Payne is an excellent counter attacking full back and a quality defensive centre but pacey outside centre he is not.
When Jonny Sexton broke the line in the second half and offloaded to the speeding Henshaw, the English defence was carved open. Only a spectacular last ditch tackle by Nowell prevented the try. Ireland need to develop this style of play over the next four years so that we have a realistic chance of beating the Southern Hemisphere sides in the next World Cup.
Hopefully the change in emphasis in the second half against England is a foretaste of what is to come.