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Friday 23 February 2018

Double trouble for Schmidt with Furlong doubt and Robbie out

Ireland 56 Italy 19

AGONY: Ireland’s Robbie Henshaw grimaces as he leaves the pitch with a shoulder injury during the Six Nations match against Italy at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday. Pic: Sportsfile
AGONY: Ireland’s Robbie Henshaw grimaces as he leaves the pitch with a shoulder injury during the Six Nations match against Italy at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday. Pic: Sportsfile

Will Joe Schmidt look back on what happened in the second-half on Saturday as the small margin Ireland lose the Six Nations title?

Casting the memory net back to 2014, there was just a points-differential of 10 (+83 against +73) between Ireland and England, both concluding the competition with four wins out of five.

In 2015, Joe Schmidt made it back-to-back championships by an even tighter differential of 6 (+63 against +57), both again takin four-from-five.

Since then, Eddie Jones's England have taken a Grand Slam in 2016 and were denied the back-to-back by Ireland last March, having to settle for the title on four-from-five.

At the moment, Ireland hold a precarious differential of 2 points over England with both nations on nine points from two wins and one bonus-point.

The Irish hit Italy for 28 points in the first-half at Lansdowne Road and another 28 in the second-half.

Loose

The problem was they became loose with the ball, trying passes that were more risky and more unrewarding.

The new look Italy may be in dire needed of more meaningful defence.

But, under Conor O'Shea, they have shown the capacity to create and take chances, notching up three against England and three against Ireland.

Last year, Italy went to Twickenham and outsmarted England with their implementation of a tactic to remove the offside line by refusing to form a ruck.

There was always likely to be a different rabbit out of the hat away to Ireland.

It came in the tweak of their defensive strategy, bringing more line-speed rather than drifting.

Either way, Schmidt split the difference between what his players did and what Italy's did.

"I think is was eagerness to play and I think it was the line speed they brought," said Schmidt.

"We were a bit surprised. They hadn't been quite as proactive against England.

"Maybe, they decided, 'we can't let Ireland play at us. We're going to have to play at them.

"I think they put some good defensive pressure on."

Then, Schmidt alluded to the real, substantive reason why Ireland didn't hammer the nails home.

They went away from their game plan.

"When you score an early try or two - I think we had two tries in the first 15 minutes - then you start to maybe get a little freer with the ball, force the odd pass or take a chance you might not have otherwise taken.

"I don't mind if we take chances. I think it's good we take chances. But, we just want to make sure we keep taking responsibility for looking after the ball.

"We will want to tidy that up before we get to Wales."

It should not be forgotten how all of the Italian pack was cobbled together from Benetton Treviso with the exception of their captain Sergio Parisse in the twilight of his career.

Indeed, the Stade Francais icon of Italy was the only starter not from Zebre or Treviso, two clubs that know only losing. And losing big.

Unfortunately, Ireland will be short-handed by the time Warren Gatland rolls into Dublin town.

So often, it is discussed how Ireland would struggle without Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton.

The third and fourth best, or most important, men out of the first fifteen are probably Robbie Henshaw and Tadhg Furlong.

It looks like Henshaw could well miss the rest of the season with a dislocated shoulder.

Tightening

The way Furlong pulled up with his hamstring, it looked like more than the tweak it was portrayed to be.

"Tadhg felt a tightening on deceleration. For a tight-head prop, he probably just moves more quickly than he should. As a result, he felt tightening.

"We'd be hopeful he would still be okay in two weeks' time."

This looks like a very optimistic outlook given how Furlong hobbled away from the game.

At half-time, number eight Jack Conan was withdrawn with a blow to his shoulder as a precautionary measure and Iain Henderson's removal was explained as a matter of managing his time.

There is more uplifting news on Seán O'Brien's rehabilitation of a hip injury.

The flanker could well join up with the Ireland squad, although a hit-out for Leinster against The Scarlets next Saturday is an option to blow away the cobwebs.

Garry Ringrose, the most obvious replacement for Henshaw, should be back for The Scarlets, or a week later.

Either way, the Leinster centre looks unlikely for Wales due to how little rugby he has played this season.

This makes Chris Farrell the next man up to partner Aki in Ireland's midfield against Warren Gatland's men.

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