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Sunday 11 December 2016

Brent Pope: Timely wake-up call for drowsy Ireland

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt

Joe Schmidt wanted a tough test and my God he got it, to such an extent that just after half-time when you expected Ireland to wake up, it was Italy who started to believe, and they had every right to.

Up until then Italy deserved to be well in this match. In fact had Italy managed to score when they were called back after Peter O'Mahoney's try saving tackle, and had they a decent kicker then they may have actually won the match just as easily.

It was a poor Irish performance in yesterday's 16-9 victory and one can only hope this is the massive wake-up call that Ireland needed before the biggest match in recent history, and despite a slightly better second half Ireland still have a lot of pitch work to do in order to beat one of the most consistent World Cup teams in world cup history,France

In a weekend that saw England become the first host side in the history of this tournament to drop out at the pool stage, Ireland at least guaranteed their qualification with an expected although largely unimpressive win against Italy.

Irish head coach Joe Schmidt wanted and demanded a more physical workout than he had experienced against Canada and Romania and for large parts of the game he got his wish.

In previous one-sided games Ireland had been given plenty of latitude in regards to space and getting away with errors, Schmidt hoped that in a tougher arm-wrestle he would learn more about his players.

Intent

Italy started the game with real intent and tempo, but would soon realise that all the ball in the world without many points to show for it would make things difficult for them in the end, and despite a particularly slow first half Ireland still looked a cut above the brave Italians.

Johnny Sexton had a mixed day but still showed how critical he is to Ireland by using his famous Leinster loop-around to pretty good effect.

After 19 minutes Schmidt learned the value of the returning Robbie Henshaw when the big centre fixed the Italian defence well and showed good hands to gift Keith Earls his third try of this campaign. Who would have thought that Ireland would taken so long to score again?

Reading into Schmidt's selections for this match it would appear that in the forward pack Ulster's Iain Henderson will partner Paul O' Connell against the French, and that loose-head prop Jack McGrath will start that match instead of Cian Healy.

I think that Schmidt should have started Healy in this match, especially given that Healy needs some serious game time. Twice when placed into the clear against Romania, Healy did not look at his dynamic best, but I would have been inclined to at least start him against Italy, and then for Schmidt to say to Healy next week "go out against France and give me the best 40 minutes you can" and then take him off.

I think Healy is more effective starting a match rather than coming on as an impact sub when he may struggle to get up to the speed of the game.

The other positions that the coach still had question marks about were who would partner Robbie Henshaw in the midfield? And who would play wing alongside Dave Kearney?

Keith Earls was given the nod at outside centre based on his recent good form and while he offers quicker feet than the incumbent Jared Payne, his lack of bulk at this level is still a major concern to me, especially with the size of the opposition backlines coming up.

Luke Fitzgerald may have been considered given that he tips the scales a fair bit heavier than Earls and still gives Schmidt that creative edge. Coming up to half-time the Irish led by 10-6 but at times, despite the lead, they had been far too narrow in attack, often just preferring to turn the ball inside to where the Italians defended well.

Schmidt will also be very disappointed that the maul was not as impressive as it had been in the last two Six Nations campaigns, and France would have rubbing their hands at the thought of their big pack.

Ireland's loose forwards apart from Peter O'Mahoney were also anonymous for large parts of the game, and it seems that teams are now marking Seán O Brien out of the game; Ireland needs more options in ball-carrying gain-line play.

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