By Tadhg Peavoy
It’s a results orientated business is the refrain that has abounded since Ireland’s team was named to face Italy. Why? Because this is essentially as risk averse a team as could have been expected to line out against the Azzurri on Saturday.
Those folk of an adventurous mind frame had called for Schmidt to retain Stuart McCloskey at 12 and move Jared Payne to 15 and perhaps even bring Craig Gilroy in on the wing. None of this has happened, with Payne returning to the side in the centre and Simon Zebo stepping in at fullback for the injured Rob Kearney.
The rest of the 15 is unchanged from the trip to London; however, a mass experiment from Joe Schmidt was unlikely. During his tenure as Ireland coach he has favoured consistency and true to form he has stuck to that this time out.
There is plenty of argument in favour of his selection. Ireland are on a four-game winless streak and a further defeat, heading into a final weekend and potential Wooden Spoon, would do little for morale in camp. A win against the Italians would ensure a minimum-finish of fifth in the table and give Ireland a much needed confidence boost ahead of the visit of Scotland in round five.
With a three-Test tour to South Africa coming up in June, Ireland will want some form heading into the second toughest assignment in world rugby; playing the Boks three times on their own turf is perhaps the most physically daunting challenge in the international game and Joe and Co will value an injection of morale ahead of their visit to the southern hemisphere.
What’s more, the IRFU demand results in the Six Nations, and a potential two wins against the two weakest sides in the division, are almost mandatory at this stage, most especially when at home.
Many would have gambled further with the 23 this week – this writer included – but a head nod must be given to Schmidt in terms of his wisdom in taking progress at a gentle pace. Patience is a virtue in such matters.
And there are plenty of new ideas that need further gelling on Saturday. The back row of CJ Stander, Josh van der Flier and Jamie Heaslip gets another valuable run together and Zebo gets a further chance to stake a claim to the 15 jersey, which Schmidt has begun to make clear is the position he sees the Munsterman destined to play for Ireland long term.
Likewise Sean Cronin’s inclusion on the bench is an important chance for the superb ball-carrying hooker to get time to impress as the logical successor to Rory Best.
Ultan Dillane should likewise get time off the bench to show his cameo in London was not just a once off. He is the future for Ireland at lock and the more game time he gets in the next five Tests the better.
Finlay Bealham’s spot on the bench is yet another positive inclusion and a step towards building for the future.
With a selection that has going for the W written all over it, Ireland face an Italy side also in transition. Three defeats on the bounce and coming to the end of Jacques Brunel’s tenure, the Azzurri are very much there for the taking.
After almost scalping France in round one, a decent first half followed by capitulation against England, and a leaky defence leading to a home defeat against Scotland, the Italians have been a similar story this season: disappointing.
There are so many larger issues that underlie Italy’s problems in delivering a team that can crack the top half of the Six Nations table and reach the Rugby World up knock-out stages, not least a poor underage structure and similar problems in terms of funding and organisation at Pro12 and international level. They all feed into having a team that lacks the cohesion of their opponents on Saturday.
With four changes from the clash with Scotland, including a debutant out-half in Edoardo Padovani, this team looks far from settled, and on paper at least, one that should struggle to damage Ireland.
The Azzurri side is built around the world’s best No 8 Sergio Parisse, with Davide Giazzon and Lorenzo Cittadini in the front row, and Alessandro Zanni at seven the other key men in the pack. Outside, Gonzalo Garcia and Michele Campagnaro are the source and centre of Italy’s creativity.
The manner in which Scotland cut Italy open for three tries should be replicated by Ireland. The Scots kept the ball in hand at every opportunity and used width to pull the Italians out of shape in defence and expose what has been a leaky rearguard for the entire tournament. It’s not rocket science, and with a good set-piece, allied to retention, Ireland are more than capable of doing similar to Italy at the Aviva.
Ireland showed all the ability to do that and more against England in round three, and as their game plan continues to expand beyond the kicking game of 2014 and 2015, all signs point to a continuation of their expanded style. Barring a hugely under par performance from Schmidt’s team, Ireland’s winless streak will end on Saturday.
Prediction: Ireland to win by 17.
Ireland: Zebo, Trimble, Payne, Henshaw, Earls, Sexton, Murray; McGrath, Best (capt), Ross; Ryan, Toner; Stander, Van der Flier, Heaslip.
Replacements: Cronin, Bealham, White, Dillane, Ruddock, Marmion, Madigan, McFadden.
Italy: Odiete, Sarto, Campagnaro, Garcia, Bellini, Padovani, Palazzani; Lovotti, Giazzon, Cittadini, Biagi, Fuser, Minto, Zanni, Parisse.
Replacements: Fabiani, Zanusso, Chistolini, Geldenhuys, Steyn, Lucchese, Haimona, McLean.