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Despite their Italian Renaissance, Ireland face uphill struggle to overhaul England in Six Nations

Keith Earls, Conor Murray, John Ryan, Niall Scannell and Ian Keatley celebrate (Image: inpho.ie/Dan Sheridan)
Keith Earls, Conor Murray, John Ryan, Niall Scannell and Ian Keatley celebrate
(Image: inpho.ie/Dan Sheridan)

WHILE Rome wasn’t built in a day, an afternoon in the Italian capital was sufficient length of time for Ireland’s self-confidence to be rebuilt.

Against an Italian backline who had fewer moves than the Greco-Roman statues that lined the terrace on the walk up to the Stadio Olimpico, Joe Schmidt’s side erased the haunting memories of Murrayfield and strolled to the easiest of wins imaginable.

With records being rewritten, and Scotland losing in Paris a day later, the destiny of the championship was seemingly back in Irish hands.

Yet a closer inspection of the upcoming fixture list suggests that England already have their fingerprints on the trophy.

Like Ireland, fate has determined that they had to visit Cardiff in this championship while hosting the French.

And with eight points already bagged – and the guarantee of five more heading their way once Italy travel to Twickenham – Eddie Jones’ side are already planning towards March 18, the final day of the Championship.

“We’re disappointed because we still haven’t played as well as we can,” Jones said. “We’d love to play a really good game of rugby and that might be against Italy in two weeks’ time. They can be quite a niggly side and make the game pretty horrible. We have to plan ahead.”

And so must Ireland. With England on the march, already it is clear that if Ireland are to still be in with a shout of claiming a third title in four years, one of three scenarios need to unfold.

A: Schmidt’s side must beat both France and Wales in the next two fixtures – and if a bonus point can be gathered along the way then that would make life considerably less complicated on March 18, when England visit the Aviva Stadium for the final game of the season.

B: Schmidt will be hoping his old buddy, Vern Cotter, can inspire Scotland sufficiently to deny England a winning bonus point on their visit to Twickenham on the fourth weekend of the championship.

C: Should Plan A and B fail to produce the desired results from an Irish perspective, then the likelihood is that England will land in Dublin on St Patrick’s weekend chasing not just a second successive Grand Slam but also a world record 19th consecutive test win.

Two bonus-point victories over Scotland and Italy will leave them on 18 points – whereas Ireland, realistically, are unlikely to have more than 14 points chalked up on the board by that juncture, thereby leaving them needing to deny England a losing bonus point to claim the title.

Yet even if this eventuality was to unfold, further complications arise.

“We plan to take Italy to the cleaners,” said Jones in the aftermath of his side’s victory over Wales.

Sensing the possibility of this championship being determined by points difference, Jones will have noticed Ireland’s scoreline in Rome and realised England need to better it.

Should they do so, then the task facing Ireland will be altogether harder again.

Not only would they need to win their final three games against the Welsh, French and English, but they could also have to defeat England by a sizeable margin on the final day to be assured of the championship.

As if all this wasn’t complicated enough, Schmidt has a few other dilemmas to consider.

Paddy Jackson could be dropped to the bench (inpho.ie/Dan Sheridan)
Paddy Jackson could be dropped to the bench (inpho.ie/Dan Sheridan)

Firstly, there is the thorny issue of team selection. With Johnny Sexton, Peter O’Mahony, Rory Best and Andrew Trimble all set to return for the French game on February 25, the positions of Paddy Jackson, Josh van der Flier, Niall Scannell and Craig Gilroy are all under threat.

Significantly, none of the above have done anything wrong – although it is just as significant that Schmidt pointed out the flaws in Gilroy’s performance on Saturday.

On the field for just 32 minutes, the Ulster winger finished the afternoon with a hat-trick. “His performance was a mixed bag,” Schmidt said, which, the more you think about it, is simply a ridiculous statement to make.

Yet it echoes the noises the Ireland coach made after Stuart McCloskey’s debut in Twickenham last year. Having played reasonably, rather than spectacularly, Schmidt pointed out the areas McCloskey failed to perfect. Come the following game, against Italy, the Ulsterman was axed.

Should Trimble, Robbie Henshaw and Rob Kearney (the latter pair picked up minor knocks on Saturday) all be declared available, then it wouldn’t be the greatest shock in the world if a player who scored three tries in the most productive cameo international rugby has seen in a while, also gets shoved to one side.

Likewise, Jackson – who equalled Johnny Wilkinson’s championship record of nine successful conversions – is vulnerable to being dumped to the bench, where Scannell, who had an excellent debut, will also head should Best recover from his stomach bug.

And while we’re at it, van der Flier – the flanker – is another player walking a sporting tightrope, simply because of the depth of quality Ireland have in the back-row department.

Having said all that, there is also a reality that doing it against the French is an altogether different prospect to walking across the Italians, a team who they have played in the last 12 months, including three defeats by 50 points or more.

“People laugh when I say there are some outstanding rugby players in this country,” Conor O’Shea, the Irishman who coaches Italy, said. “But I know they are here. What we need to do is create a system that ensures they can compete at the highest level.

“We have to change the mindset of teams when they come to play against us. We have to earn that respect. Until we do that we will have difficult days. Saturday was a tough experience.”

So much so that questions about Italy’s presence in the Six Nations had to be raised, an issue O’Shea fronted up to. “We have earned the right through our performances through the years to be where we are,” he said. “Until the rules change there is no debate.”

Many more performances like Saturday’s though and there will be a debate. For the sake of the tournament – as much as the Italians – the sooner those good young players emerge, the better.

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