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Friday 15 December 2017

Brent Pope: Plenty for Joe Schmidt to fix for France test

Positive start for Irish despite injury problems

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt attends the captain's run of his team on February 6, 2015 at the Olympic Stadium in Rome
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt attends the captain's run of his team on February 6, 2015 at the Olympic Stadium in Rome

Joe Schmidt was his usual upbeat and articulate self after a decent start for Ireland in retaining their Six Nations title. Schmidt, not getting over excited, also admitted to being decidedly nervous about this opening game, but in the end as predicted by most pre-game, Italy simply ran out of juice after 60 minutes.

Ireland got off to the worst possible start in Rome when their world class open-side flanker Seán O'Brien cried off with a hamstring strain just minutes before kick-off.

The only slight consolation (if there was one) was that the injury didn't occur minutes into the match when Joe Schmidt would have been left with a man down on the bench.

In the end, Tommy O'Donnell was jettisoned into the starting side and made a decent fist of his promotion scoring a great individual try later in the match. O'Brien will be devastated, especially for a player that has worked so hard just to make it back to international rugby.

Joe Schmidt was now missing two world-class back rows in Jamie Heaslip and O'Brien, worse still for Schmidt was that O'Brien would now be surely unavailable for the French match.

O'Brien needs serious game time and the next option now for the undercooked O'Brien is to play a game at club or provincial level just to get him up to speed for England. O'Brien is so good that he can bend the usual rules for rehabilitation protocols.

Read More: Patience in Rome pays off for Irish

The first 20 minutes of this match were pretty unforgettable. Too many basic mistakes meant that there was no real continuity in the game and both teams struggled to put anything positive together.

Ireland were clearly the superior side even early on and were dominant in both the scrum and maul, but for some reason all the decoy runners and moves that they tried were too easily telegraphed and as a result Ireland never managed any significant line breaks.

Six Nations debutant out-half Ian Keatley had a mixed first half, he took his two kicks at goal well and cleaned up some messy Irish play, but at times his distribution skills and kicking out of hand were perhaps a little rusty.He will learn as he gains experience.

Read More: Ian Keatley: we need Sexton in team

Not stating the obvious, but Ireland badly missed Johnny Sexton's on pitch leadership and the ability to show and go with ball in hand. To be honest, the Italians were not as one might have expected either, often trying to play a wider game when 'Route A' would have served them much better.

Despite being at home Italy was unusually lacking their usual fizz and aggression, and they seemed strangely tame especially in the areas that we thought they might be more combative.

Ireland dominated all the possession and territory for the first 40 minutes but coming up to half-time theywere still just 6 points to the good, probably less than they really deserved.

At half time Irish captain Paul O'Connell was very vocal, telling his team that the next score would be vital either way. If it was Italy that scored first then Ireland would have a dogfight on their hands, conversely if it was Ireland that scored the points then they would have a two-score lead and hopefully that would allow them to relax an play.

And that is what happened. Once Ireland knew that they had the game bagged and tagged they looked considerably more fluent and comfortable. The overall flow of the match was not helped by some pedantic refereeing, especially early on in the match and at scrum time.

At times you had to feel for Sergio Parisse and his team as Ireland often got the rub of the green. In the second half Ireland poured the pressure on an often inept Italian side, and after 65 minutes Connor Murray's pick and go try effectively meant the game was safe from any unlikely Italian resurgence, the question then was could Ireland put together a few more tries and not concede one as point and try differential could count in the final shake-up?

The Italians were finally done and as a result the floodgates opened wide enough to allow Tommy O'Donnell a soft centre, a simple hand-off saw the Munster flanker over for a simple try.

As expected Ireland brought on replacement Ian Madigan, after all he is more than likely going to be on the bench against France next week given his ability to cover three positions.

This game went entirely to script (ie. a nervy enough first 60 minutes from Ireland before the Italians cracked). Not to be overly critical, but I did feel that it was a case of the Italians being poor as opposed to Ireland being exceptionally good.

DELIVERED

Most of the Irish team delivered what they had to, Keatley included. The Irish scrum held up well, the Irish lineout was excellent grabbing everything in the air and the loose forward trio combined well considering the late disruptions.

In the backs, Keatley took his kicks well but was a mixed bag overall, while the new look midfield of Henshaw and Payne was solid without being spectacular - they were seldom tested.

Still Joe Schmidt would have taken the 23-point win margin at the start of this game, more so now with O'Brien out.

Schmidt and O'Connell will know there is a lot of work to do in order to beat the big guns that arrive in the next fortnight, but they also have some serious playmakers to come back.

A positive start.

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