We preview Saturday’s second round Six Nations clash between Italy and Ireland.
The opening round of the 2017 Six Nations certainly raised eyebrows with Vern Cotter’s Scotland getting a vital win over the much-fancied Irish and Guy Noves’ France running England close at Twickenham. The Irish will be looking to bounce back from their aforementioned defeat when they take on an Italian side who were hammered by Wales last Sunday.
So will Joe Schmidt’s men get their campaign back on track with a bonus-point win or will the Italians hammer another nail into the Irish hearts?
Italy v Ireland | Saturday 11 February | Stadio Olimpico | 16:25
To Win (80 Mins)
Italy 10/1 | Draw 50/1 | Ireland 1/25
Italy (+23.5) 9/10 | Ireland (-23.5) 9/10
The Azzurri, in typical Italian fashion, lost their heads in the second half against Wales. Having gone into the break four points to the good, the Italians looked like they may just cause another massive upset. It was not to be, however, as ill-discipline and fatigue saw the hosts concede 33 points without responding with even a penalty of their own.
While there were encouraging aspects to the Italian performance – their defensive structures looked good for the opening 60 minutes of the game, as did their set piece – Azzurri fans must feel like they are living on the set of Groundhog Day.
So how does Connor O’Shea turn things round? Well, if I was him, I’d walk into the next Italian training session with a rather large steel pole and start beating the daylight out of yellow carded prop Andrea Lovotti, whose ill-discipline severely handicapped the Italians during the final quarter of last week’s defeat.
The second thing I would do is send them all on a very, very long run - perhaps to somewhere like Russia – in a bid to try and improve fitness levels. Unfortunately, we live in a professional era where such things are frowned upon.
Jokes aside, O’Shea really needs to drum some discipline into this Italian outfit. Their penchant for conceding soft penalties is hampering their development and costing them games. And with Ireland set to field some prodigious kicking talent this Sunday, the Azzurri may be in for a long afternoon out in Rome if they fail to clean up their act.
Are the Irish looking slightly undercooked or are the Scots a cut above this term? It’s a question doing the rounds in rugby circles at the moment and there are a myriad of answers to it. Personally, I think the Scots were a cut above. They have really developed under Vern Cotter and they will provide a stiff challenge for every side in this competition.
They may have gone down by five points to the Scots but there were certainly encouraging aspects to Ireland’s play. Robbie Henshaw, who was forced to switch to outside centre early in the piece, played out of his skin while prop Tadhg Furlong is fast becoming one of the world’s most powerful scrummagers. Speaking of the pack, the Irish pack engine room tore the Scots apart at scrum time last week but then surprisingly struggled at the line out.
The men from the ‘Emerald Isle’ still managed to secure 10 of their 12 throws but the ball wasn’t as clean as you’d expect considering Devin Toner and Iain Henderson – two blokes who could do a decent job as lighthouses – were two of their jumping options.
In terms of team news for this weekend, Joe Schmidt is facing a bit of quagmire when it comes to selecting his flyhalf for this weekend. Paddy Jackson has filled in admirably for Johhny Sexton while the veteran has been struggling with a string of niggling injuries.
Schmidt has refused to rule out a return for Sexton, however, with the Ireland mentor stating “To be honest, I'm not sure at this stage, we're going to wait and see. Johnny wasn't that far away (from facing Scotland) so he could come into the picture, but the more time that Paddy gets running the team, and the Six Nations is a little bit different to what he's done in the past.
Verdict: Ireland (-23.5) 9/10
News coming out of the Italian camp is that Talismanic skipper Sergio Parisse is struggling to overcome a neck injury he sustained against Wales. Parisse is the soul of this Italian side and his absence is a hammer blow for the Azzurri, who I can’t see putting up much of a fight without him. Get on Ireland to clear the -23.5 handicap at 9/10.