6N: Italy come at an ideal time for wounded Ireland

By DANIELLA MATAR - Associated Press 10 February 2017, 12:00AM

The Six Nations draw keeps looking on Ireland kindly.

Most observers a week ago regarded Ireland's last-round home match with England the ideal winner-takes-all finale.

It may yet prove so.

But Ireland's visit to Rome on Saturday also appears to be ideal and timed well. It could only be better if Italy was in Dublin.

The second-round match took on greater significance for Ireland as soon as fulltime was blown last weekend at Murrayfield, where it lost to Scotland 27-22.

The Irish want to get their title ambitions back on track, and what better team to face than Italy, against whom they have lost only once in the last 20 years.

In Six Nations history, Ireland lost the first game and won the last four once, in 2004. None of that runner-up team remain, but the current crop believe they can win their last four, too.

"There is a confidence that this team can still win the championship," centre Robbie Henshaw said. "What this team did last year and in November, it's incredible, it's an incredible group.

"The fact we can't afford to slip up, that applies a lot more pressure. We have to go out and win every game, and obviously chase the bonus point if it's there. It applies a lot more pressure to the squad. The squad might not be used to that, but hopefully it can only help us perform and get the best out of us."

Beside a first away win in two years, coach Joe Schmidt also demanded his side start a whole lot better than it did at Murrayfield. Scotland raced ahead 21-5 before Ireland clambered back to lead 22-21, only to concede two late penalty kicks.

Irish scrumhalf Conor Murray said their start was deeply disappointing because they trained so well last week.

"It just didn't happen (from kickoff)," Murray said.

"It's frustrating; it would be easy to feel sorry for ourselves and be quite angry with each other. There's a bit of that but we shook ourselves down early in the week."

Schmidt's belief in them was reinforced by only two changes, both in the tight five. Donnacha Ryan was fit to return at lock for Iain Henderson, and Jack McGrath's shaky start at loosehead prop saw him switched out for the man he ousted two years ago, Cian Healy.

Italy made four changes after limiting Wales to a 33-7 win, bringing back hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini, lock Andries van Schalkwyk, flanker Simone Favaro, and winger Angelo Esposito.

Italy conceded 60 points in its previous two matches with Wales, but led the Welsh 7-3 at halftime. The Italians remained competitive until an hour in when prop Andrea Lovotti was sin-binned and, in his absence, Wales scored two converted tries.

Poor discipline was decisive for Italy, which gave away 16 penalties. One of the biggest offenders was captain Sergio Parisse.

"We have to focus on what we can control, on the details which make the difference ... discipline is something we can control and therefore improve, it depends on us," Italy coach Conor O'Shea said.

O'Shea played 35 times for Ireland.

"Ireland is my home, my family, the place we spend our holidays," O'Shea said. "It's the country where I grew up and for which I always wanted to play. But today my only concern is Italian rugby.

"I'm not thinking about Ireland, but about us, about Italy. We have in front of us a mountain to climb for 80 minutes, I hope we can have a great game this weekend."



Italy: Edoardo Padovani, Angelo Esposito, Tommaso Benvenuti, Luke McLean, Giovanbattista Venditti, Carlo Canna, Edoardo Gori; Sergio Parisse (captain), Simone Favaro, Maxime Mbanda, Andries van Schalkwyk, Marco Fuser, Lorenzo Cittadini, Leonardo Ghiraldini, Andrea Lovotti. Reserves: Ornel Gega, Sami Panico, Dario Chistolini, George Biagi, Abraham Steyn, Giorgio Bronzini, Tommaso Allan, Michele Campagnaro.

Ireland: Rob Kearney, Keith Earls, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, Simon Zebo, Paddy Jackson, Conor Murray; Jamie Heaslip, Sean O'Brien, CJ Stander, Devin Toner, Donnacha Ryan, Tadhg Furlong, Rory Best (captain), Cian Healy. Reserves: Niall Scannell, Jack McGrath, John Ryan, Ultan Dillane, Josh van der Flier, Kieran Marmion, Ian Keatley, Craig Gilroy.

By DANIELLA MATAR - Associated Press 10 February 2017, 12:00AM

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