DUBLIN (AP) — To Ireland's deep frustration, it knows it could be vying for the Six Nations title instead of trying to avoid the wooden spoon.
Before the championship, few gave the Irish much chance of a third straight crown, not after key retirements and enough injuries to almost fill another team. They haven't won a match, but they have torn up all expectations by how well they've competed.
Ireland led Wales 13-0 in Dublin and ended up settling for a 16-16 draw; led France 9-3 during a downpour in Paris and ended up losing 10-9; and led England until an hour in at Twickenham and saw two tries disallowed in a 21-10 defeat.
Where the Irish place in the bottom half of the standings for only the second time in eight years depends on how they finish at home against Italy on Saturday and Scotland next week.
Beat Italy and Scotland, who are considered to be risers in the rugby world, unlike Ireland, and the campaign will be considered depressing rather than damned.
"We're very close to clicking," winger Andrew Trimble says, "and, when we do, hopefully the players and coaches will be vindicated."
Ireland's problems have been a lack of tries - just two, half as many as Italy - and the scrum.
The failure to finish chances has hurt the Irish. Flyhalf Jonathan Sexton has done his part by succeeding with all nine of his goalkicks in the tournament, while scrumhalf Conor Murray has both of the tries.
The team has had more than enough possession and time in the opposition half, but struggled to break down defenses
As Trimble adds, "We haven't become a bad side, we have just become a side that hasn't been quite as clinical as we want to be. If we'd been more clinical we could have won three games from three. I hate when I hear people say that because, ultimately, we haven't won any games and that's the way it goes. You just got to face that."
The scrum struggled against Wales and France, the forwards' mood aggravated by a belief that referees have changed how they police it since the tournament began. The Irish believe the refs have been allowing the scrums to turn after the hit but letting the ball come out rather than order a reset. Scrum coach Greg Feek said it's frustrating that the rules weren't being followed, but his pack has to adapt.
The return of veteran tighthead Mike Ross against England shored up the set-piece, even if he was still regaining his match fitness during the match at Twickenham and felt like he "was sucking in passing seagulls."
Ross expects another long afternoon against the Italians, who like to put the pressure on rather than hook the ball.
"They like to walk over it," Ross says. "That means they have to go forward. This is putting a lot of pressure on themselves to go forward, and it is a challenge for us to stop them doing that. You might see the ball sitting there for 15 to 20 seconds."
The Italian forwards may need to assert themselves more, seeing as injuries have forced coach Jacques Brunel to make four changes after the 36-20 home loss to Scotland, including starts for hooker Davide Giazzon, scrumhalf Guglielmo Palazzani, and flyhalf Edoardo Padovani.
"Padovani and Palazzani play together at Zebre, they know each other and they are used to playing toegther," Brunel says.
"It will be a complex match. Like us, Ireland is still searching for its first win in this Six Nations and, like us, has numerous players out."