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Sunday 17 December 2017

Brent Pope: Irish wide boys can do damage

Ian Keatley has been backed to carve a successful Test career despite making his Six Nations debut aged 27
Ian Keatley has been backed to carve a successful Test career despite making his Six Nations debut aged 27

DESPITE Irish Captain Paul O'Connell rightly saying all week "that Ireland will take each game as it comes, with no thoughts past the weekend" one feels that his coach Joe Schmidt has an eye further afield.

Schmidt appears to have opted for combinations and experience over fitness in certain positions when he announced his Irish side to face Italy in Rome tomorrow.

Both flanker Seán O'Brien and prop Mike Ross are well undercooked for international rugby, but there is method in Schmidt's 'madness', and a bigger picture to view, despite it being a somewhat risky selection.

Schmidt will presume that O'Brien and Ross can give it their all for 50 minutes and then spring the likes of Iain Henderson and Marty Moore off the bench; in essence that is why Schmidt has carried Tommy O'Donnell, a specialist No 7, in the reserves.

France are on the radar and Schmidt needs to see where Ross and O'Brien are fitness wise, and if they were not starting in Italy then they certainly were not starting against France. Schmidt will need 60 barnstorming minutes from O'Brien against the French.

With Ireland's bionic man Jamie Heaslip finally succumbing to injury, Schmidt might have been tempted to opt for the power of Leinster's up and coming specialist No 8 Jack Conan, but you feel that, a bit like Ian Madigan, Conan just didn't do enough last week in Cork to get the nod.

The big talking point will obviously be at out-half where Ian Keatley's provincial relationship with his scrumhalf Conor Murray must have swayed things the Munster man's way.

Madigan was everyone's automatic choice at 10 a month ago when we knew that Jonny Sexton wasn't going to make it back in time, but a two-week blip, firstly in his goal-kicking against Wasps and then in his lack of overall game management for the Wolfhounds now sees Madigan drop down the pecking order.

Madigan will be devastated, for so long like Sexton with O'Gara, he has seen himself as Sexton's heir apparent, but he must now wait for another chance. Schmidt knows what Madigan is capable of, and the Leinster outhalf is one of the most talented young players in the world, but Schmidt may feel that with a relatively new and inexperienced midfield he needs a steady hand, and Keatley gives him that.

Madigan is an instinctive player that plays what is in front of him first, and that is admirable, but it can go against the game-brief and in the past he has also been criticised for not being vocal enough to his outside backs and for not being able to read the flow of the game effectively.

It was alright when O'Driscoll was there or he was playing outside Sexton, as both these players are excellent communicators, after all the outhalf is the general on the field and he must lead the entire backline with authority and wisdom. Obviously Schmidt feels that Madigan is not doing that.

Elsewhere, as predicted the midfield is a combination of youth and experience with Robbie Henshaw at 12 and Jared Payne at 13, it will be good enough to dominate Italy.

However, the worry is that Henshaw plays most of his provincial rugby in the outside centre channel at 13 and Payne at 15, but still they combined well enough in the Autumn and Schmidt is staying loyal to that combination.

Many felt that Luke Fitzgerald had a lot to offer at 13 after recent games, but that candle was extinguished when Schmidt selected him on the wing for the Wolfhounds.

Unfortunately Fitzgerald took ill the day of the match, so even the versatile Fitzgerald putting any real heat on Simon Zebo's wing position was also gone

So despite the biennual visit to the Eternal City always being something of a potential 'banana skin' for Ireland, Schmidt's men have the perfect chance to start their Six Nations campaign with a victory and build confidence and momentum before the crucial visits of France and England.

At the end of the day, despite always being far more competitive at home (beating Ireland back in 2013) the Italians along with the Scottish are still perennial wooden spooners and it is a game Ireland will target to win.

Tonight, assuming the game is unlikely to end in a draw, one of either Wales or England will be off to the worst possible start, with pressure then building on them to win the next game. So Ireland need to ahead of the chasing pack.

STRENGTHS

Ireland had a definite way of playing last year and apart from a few changes, ie no Brian O'Driscoll or Jonny Sexton, Schmidt will demand that players play to their strengths, which to me is wider out.

Italy do not possess the talent out wide to trouble Ireland, apart from their talented young centre Michele Campagnao. The Italians are aggressive, organised well in defence but are seriously limited in what they can do in attack, Ireland must take advantage of this fact and avoid the traditional arm wrestle in the scrum and in the close collision areas where the Azzurri prefer to mix it.

The secret to a Rome success is to play your own game, not theirs. Italy will rely too heavily on experience. Forwards like tSergio Parisse and Martin Castrogiovanni will be asked once again to carry a huge workload.

But it is too much to ask, Italy have not developed much past these players. Of course Italy will take it to Ireland for 60 minutes but after that Ireland have too much class and too much talent, and with the Italian panzer division tiring Ireland will run out comfortable enough winners.

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