Two tests, two losses, two points.
Ireland’s stark stats have it above only Italy on the Six Nations table, and the tournament’s only two winless teams meet in Rome on what is forecast to be a sunny, warm Saturday.
Conditions will be clear and perfect then for the heads-up rugby Ireland’s coaches have been trying to develop and encourage from the players, who have been slow to process it.
After the detailed scheming under previous coach Joe Schmidt, which was highly successful but became numbingly restrictive, Andy Farrell’s ploy to give the players more leeway has yet to pay off.
Defeats to Wales away and France at home mark Ireland’s worst start to the Six Nations since 1998 and three straight losses in the tournament dating to last year are a first since 2000. What partly redeems Ireland was both defeats were by one score. Ireland could easily be 2-0. It dominated possession in both games, even while playing with 14 men against Wales for nearly an hour, and there was lots of creativity before it was invariably messed up in sight of the tryline.
The end result was only one try in each game, and the one against France was opportunist. Ireland’s two tries are one less than Italy managed against France and England.
Attack coach Mike Catt has stressed the players must think better on the field, especially in unstructured situations such as kick returns and counterattacks. Catt wants the team’s “deep thinkers” to think less, to go with their gut, because Ireland’s gut thinking is to kick first. The initial instinct is to play it safe.
Captain Jonathan Sexton believes the solution is less about instinct and more about emphasizing intent, working to create space and attacking it.
“Get all of the thoughts out of your head and play what you see,” Sexton says. “Sometimes guys, they’re so determined to do well they can get in their own way, and I’ve been that guy before where you’re so keen to do the right thing and you force it or you miss an opportunity because you’re trying too hard.”
Catt adds some of the fix is improving communication, notably among the outside backs, instead of relying on the halves to call the shots.
All of these lessons came out of the 15-13 loss to France, which frustrated and annoyed Sexton because they also came up last year.
“To improve as a team you need to learn the lessons and not go back a step,” he says.
Sexton and lock James Ryan are back after missing the France game because of head knocks against Wales. Prop Tadhg Furlong anchors a new front row, and the backline is all Leinster for the first time since 1931.
They are expected to rediscover their attacking mojo at the Stadio Olimpico, but Farrell says its disrespectful to believe magic will happen just because they face an Italy team which has gone six years without winning a Six Nations match. England had the same belief and ambition two weeks ago, after losing its opener to Scotland. England wanted to make a statement at Twickenham at Italy’s expense, but the statement confirmed its attack was still only average.
Italy has picked the same starting XV that scored a nifty team try against England from lineout ball after three minutes.
“They’re moving in the right direction,” Farrell says of the Italians, adding, “We have to go with the right attitude.”
Italy: Jacopo Trulla, Luca Sperandio, Juan Ignacio Brex, Carlo Canna, Montanna Ioane, Paolo Garbisi, Stephen Varney; Michele Lamaro, Johan Meyer, Sebastian Negri, David Sisi, Marco Lazzaroni, Marco Riccioni, Luca Bigi (captain), Andrea Lovotti. Reserves: Gianmarco Lucchesi, Cherif Traore, Giosuè Zilocchi, Niccolò Cannone, Maxime Mbanda, Callum Braley, Federico Mori, Mattia Bellini.
Ireland: Hugo Keenan, Jordan Larmour, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, James Lowe, Jonathan Sexton (captain), Jamison Gibson-Park; CJ Stander, Will Connors, Tadhg Beirne, James Ryan, Iain Henderson, Tadhg Furlong, Ronan Kelleher, Dave Kilcoyne. Reserves: Rob Herring, Cian Healy, Andrew Porter, Ryan Baird, Jack Conan, Craig Casey, Billy Burns, Keith Earls.
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