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Monday 11 December 2017

Patience in Rome pays off for Irish

Murphy and O'Donnell will battle it out for O'Brien's openside berth for visit of French

Irish player Tommy O'Donnell scores a try during the Six Nations International Rugby Union match between Italy and Ireland at the Olympic Stadium in Rome on February 7, 2015
Irish player Tommy O'Donnell scores a try during the Six Nations International Rugby Union match between Italy and Ireland at the Olympic Stadium in Rome on February 7, 2015

Ireland coach Joe Schmidt was not keen to draw a comparison between what England did to Wales on Friday night and what Ireland did to Italy on Saturday afternoon.

"I don't think we would have lived with them," he said.

"The benchmark was set by England. They just kept the pressure right on Wales and the physical nature of that battle means we've got a bit of work to do without a doubt."

On the face of it, this is nothing more than fair comment. The intensity in Rome was light years away from what was available in the cauldron of Cardiff.

"I wouldn't be a great guy to throw numbers out. But, I'd say (we were) between 30% and 40% off.

"For us, we certainly need to up our game."

The calculated mind of Schmidt means he would have tailored a plan to take Italy down, based around a simple, direct strategy.

That was never likely to pay-off without putting in the hard groundwork necessary to break the resolute Italians in the Eternal City in what was death by a thousand thrusts.

"I do think that part of it was the pressure Italy put on us," he added

"At the same time, I know we can do better than that and we're going to have to.

"I think Italy will improve through the tournament as well, they showed glimpses of what they are capable of.

"But, you pick up two months after November with a number of changes - we had six of the starting 15 that we had this time last year - so that, in itself, presents a challenge."

The half-dozen also present to dissolve Scotland in the first match last season will be joined by out-half Jonathan Sexton and number eight Jamie Heaslip in hosting France on Saturday evening.

Coach and captain are working as one to generate a winning mentality, an edge in combat developed over the last 18 months that has taken the Irish to third in the world rankings.

No sooner had the coach dampened expectation about where Ireland currently stand against England, the country most likely to threaten a second successive Six Nations coronation than his captain put flesh on the bones of Schmidt's comments.

"You would love to have started the game a lot better than we did, giving ourselves more confidence," reflected Paul O'Connell.

DOUBLE ACT

Needless to say, the most unlikely double act since cream and cheese were measured in their criticism.

Afterall, they have to make room for positivity at a winning time in Ireland's evolution.

"The heads didn't drop. We just stuck at it. We spoke during the week about playing for 80-plus minutes.

"If you are going to talk about it, you have to be willing to do it. And I think we were."

Patience was definitely a virtue as mistakes crept in and space was squeezed out.

Where Ireland were met with a stonewall defence in the first-half, they slowly, chipped away to plunder tries by scrum-half Conor Murray and openside Tommy O'Donnell.

The careful plan to reintroduce Seán O'Brien to match fitness gradually through the Six Nations must be in serious doubt.

What Schmidt referred to as a hamstring "twinged" is something that could possibly be remedied within a week. Possibly.

The problem is that O'Brien has played just two matches this season, completing the first for Leinster against Glasgow Warriors back in September and getting through 50-odd minutes for the Irish Wolfhounds last Friday week.

Italy was to mark the second game in his search for match sharpness. That is gone now.

Schmidt was not about to give up on his flanker: "I'd be hopeful. I'd be quietly confident," he said, about a return to action next week.

"We will scan him when we get back to Dublin. We'll have an update on Monday I would say when we can give specific feedback."

Surely, Schmidt will either put O'Brien on lay away or release him back to play for Leinster against the Dragons in the PRO12 League next Sunday, the day after France play Ireland at the Aviva Stadium.

It would be perilous to risk O'Brien against the French with the strong possibility the flank forward could pull up lame and put unnecessary stress on Ireland's game plan and resources.

The fact Heaslip has already been cleared to resume full-contact training reduces the pressure to play O'Brien if the argument comes down to the need for experience in the back row.

It should leave Schmidt with the straight choice between rewarding Tommy O'Donnell's impressive impact from a last-minute call-up and moving the all-action, versatile Jordi Murphy from eight to seven.

Captain O'Connell didn't have to be asked twice to declare the credentials of his Munster colleague.

"Tommy's stats all year have been incredible," he said.

"Sometimes powerful guys find it hard to combine power with fitness.

"He's one of those rare guys who has both of them. I've seen it for Munster for the last few months.

"It seems like every time I get off the ground or look up he is carrying the ball or tackling someone. He's had a great season."

This is certainly backed-up by the release of the facts and figures generated by the 'official Six Nations match data'.

This shows O'Donnell topped the Irish tackle count on 12 and closed up to second behind Rob Kearney (65) with 43 metres made, largely due to his second international try.

Where O'Donnell has the capacity to make those lung-bursting, long distance launches, Murphy tends to cause damage through relentless work rate.

This was reflected in his tremendous 17 ball carries, mostly going in where it hurt most for marginal gains.

"Jordi's work rate throughout was really impressive. He volunteered to carry a lot as well as tackle," said Schmidt.

Captain Sergio Parisse was under-whelmed at how Italy could not gain enough ball to cause any real damage.

In reality, Ireland enjoyed 63% of possession to go alongside 63% of the territory. When Italy won the ball, they couldn't keep it or move it well enough.

"We didn't show too much," he shared.

"Ireland didn't do much to put us under pressure, but they had the ball for the most of the time and you can't defend for 80 minutes against a team like Ireland."

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