Every game in the Six Nations is a must-win. Lose one, the Slam is gone, the Triple Crown too potentially, and with no round robin structure or pool stages the competition is already much further out of your control than it already was. That being said, we have recent precedent for a team losing their opener and still winning the tournament – Wales in 2013. Back then there were no bonus points and the Welsh had been well and truly battered by Ireland in the opening game. You’d swear that opening game never happened as they nonchalantly proceeded to run home with the trophy come the final game against England. There’s hope, that’s all I’m saying!
Speaking of must-win games though, I can safely say the Italy fixture this weekend is the most must-win Ireland have played against the Italians since they joined the tournament 17 years ago. Not only that but a bonus point for a maximum haul of five points is now an absolute necessity from this; and from as many other fixtures as possible. History tells us, 2013 aside, that it is doable. Recent history though – last weekend – tells us there could be a real risk of Ireland slipping here too. There’s no question that man for man Ireland have the advantage over the Italians, but they in turn have Conor O’Shea. Fair enough this is his first Six Nations in charge and extreme turnarounds from rags to riches are rare in international rugby; but you can rest assured he has his eyes firmly set on trying to do a number on his home country. Not out of any malice, but the head job this side of the pond will be up for grabs in 2019, not a bad starting audition to derail the Schmidt Machine.
On the Italian side, team selection hasn’t yielded much in the way of surprises or any showing of O’Shea’s hand. Simone Favaro and Leonardo Ghiraldini return to the starting team to reclaim ownership of their respective jerseys and the untested Dries Van Schalkwyk returns to the second row, though Italy aren’t exactly spoiled for choice in this position. One change in the backs sees Giulio Bisegni dumped out of the squad, though he had a poor enough showing in the second half last week to make that change not altogether surprising. In general, with the clubs so poor, it is always very hard to try and gauge anything from an Italian selection, except the presence of the evergreen Sergio Parisse. There was some doubt this week after a neck injury against Wales but the titan of Italian rugby seems to have shaken that off to start this weekend, and his presence alone is always a guaranteed boost to team spirit and morale. One can’t help but picture himself and Conor O’Shea, sitting in a dark room plotting the downfall of the Boys In Green. None of it comes from a malicious place, but the Irish relationship with Italy is a fascinating one. One victory over the Irish in the Six Nations, and many close calls (or at least close calls for 60 minutes). Last year seemed to be a return to the old ways, including a team try to beat them all from Ireland, and discipline seems to be the main kink in the Italian chain that O’Shea hasn’t managed to fix. There has been statements from him this week that Italy were unfairly treated by the officials against Wales, and they’re not entirely unfounded, but still Italy persist in being extremely ill-disciplined towards the end of games, especially if they are already dead and buried by the opposition.
What has Schmidt got planned to counter this masterplan then? In his team selection there has been little change, aside from some forced swaps. Donnacha Ryan was always coming back into the team if fit, though a slight injury to Iain Henderson seems to have made that call a little easier. Tommy Bowe drops out of the squad altogether and Craig Gilroy takes his 23 jersey, with some justifiable eyebrows raised as to why Tiernan O’Halloran wasn’t drafted in. Gilroy can be a fine attacking player on his day but truly only covers the wing, and only one wing at that. Pray no injuries befall Rob Kearney or either centre. Possibly most surprising is the demotion of Jack McGrath to the bench in favour of Cian Healy, for a variety of reasons. First of all, McGrath has taken the starting slot from Healy for Leinster, never mind Ireland, and the latter has still not returned to his peak form of old after some dogged spells with injury. Sure enough, Healy has certainly returned to a stable level of performance and can easily last the sixty, letting McGrath come on against a weaker pack and wreak havoc, but you’d have to wonder if the lack of McGrath in the early stages of the game could come back to haunt Schmidt. Secondly, if we couple this with the aforementioned Gilroy appearing instead of Andrew Trimble then it looks a little like Schmidt still feels comfortable enough to rest players through apprehension. Trimble is recovering from injury but there are rumblings that he may indeed be fit to play but not being risked. To be honest, aside from the standalone players like Sexton, when it comes to Six Nations you’re either fit or you’re not. If there is any chance that Schmidt is leaving out viable players with an eye on the games to come, there may be justifiable cause to worry.
Schmidt himself pointed out that Scotland scored three tries in thirty minutes last week, then didn’t score a single one after that time. Ireland lost the game in the opening thirty and even massively outscoring Scotland in the remaining fifty minutes was not enough to be victorious. Italy may not pose anything close to the same threat, but for the confidence of the starting 15 alone a strong start is crucial this weekend. If Italy score first – and worse still if they score the first try – there could be a real risk of this Irish side crumbling or at least beginning to. In any international game you can’t offer up a lead such as the one given to Scotland. The opposition becomes largely irrelevant and the magnitude of the mountain to climb becomes mentally draining. As was proven in the opener; lose your head, lose the game. I hope to be wrong, I truly do, but suffice to say that some doubt has crept in after last week’s loss, of course it has; and things could wind up being a little closer then expected on Saturday.
And for the love of all that is meaningful and precious in this world, can we shut up about the bus being late last week? Professional rugby players couldn’t possibly be that mentally fragile and if that honestly had anything more than a minute role in the loss at Murrayfield I would seriously worry for the state of mind in this squad!