PSA Academies’ Johne Murphy previews Ireland’s early Saturday kick off at home to Italy in the second round of the 2018 NatWest 6 Nations. Now that Joe Schmidt’s side have played their ‘get out of jail’ card, is it time for some fireworks to get their Championship aspirations really firing?
After last week’s Paris Houdini act from Johnny Sexton et al, it is back to home comforts and the ideal 2018 NatWest 6 Nations second act with the visit of the already bruised Italians.
Joe Schmidt, as only he can, has given the public nearly everything they wanted in shuffling his deck for what has to be a bonus point win effort. Upfront he’s given Jack McGrath, Devin Toner and Jack Conan all real opportunities to stake a meaningful claim for the following Welsh game (which could take on a much bigger significance depending on what happens later on Saturday afternoon in Twickenham). In Peter O’Mahony, Conan and supersub Dan Leavy, Ireland have a well balanced and abrasive back row unit. With hat trick hero CJ Stander from the corresponding fixture in Rome last year to spring from the bench, it is an incredible reflection of the riches that Joe has in this area, surely the envy of every other coach in the competition.
Meanwhile, the other side of Joe’s shrewd tactical mind is on display behind the scrum, where he goes with an unchanged backline. This gives the team an invaluable opportunity to work on the midfield and back three combinations, to build fluency after the spluttering effort in Paris. In particular, this is a great chance for Jason Stockdale to get credits in the bank both in attack and defensively after a tricky end to his Paris experience last Saturday.
Schmidt may have resisted the clamour for fresh blood from the start but you can be sure, if Ireland have managed to gain a healthy lead by 50-55 mins, that you’ll see the three mavericks in Marmion, Carbury and Larmour being given an extended stint to show their form and attacking skills to close out affairs. There’s not a lot that I can add about Jordan Larmour that hasn’t been said before but let’s hope he gets that star cameo chance and that he grabs it with both hands. For all Rob Kearney’s fantastic footballing abilities and experience, our run into Japan 2019 will benefit hugely from getting a real cutting edge, running from deep at lightning pace in that 15 channel. I, for one, cannot wait to see him let his dancing feet loose on a tired Azzuri in the last 20mins.
Meanwhile, Italy under Conor O’Shea are showing clear signs of improvement, with a noticeable uplift in attacking intent and execution last weekend when they ran in two good tries against an impressive England. However, they are still short five or six top players, particularly upfront where the great Sergio Parisse’s powers are on the wane after 16 years of loyal service, so it is hard to see them having the game or reserves to bring it the 80 minutes in Dublin. Realistically, O’Shea and his backroom team are truly on a development path for the RWC2019 so that’s when his root and branch reform of Italian rugby is going to show real returns. In the meantime, they will be inventive, passionate, competitive but possibly indisciplined, allowing Ireland plenty of field position and likely good opportunities to build a solid lead through to the 50 minute mark, when all eyes will scan the Irish bench for signs of the new guns being let loose.
Of course, Ireland being Ireland, the weather conditions will play their part and with a wet afternoon being forecasted, you can’t underestimate the potential negative impact that might have on the quality on display. Having said that, I’m still expecting Ireland to comfortably record the bonus point win and put a real marker in the Aviva turf before the annual Wales grudge match in a few weeks.