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Gordon D’Arcy: Italy v Ireland is one of Andy Farrell’s last chances to experiment before the World Cup

Saturday’s game doesn’t operate in a vacuum, it has context for the Six Nations, the World Cup and the inner workings of the squad

Striding into Carton House as a member of the Ireland rugby squad is like walking through the wardrobe door into Narnia, another realm that removes the day-to-day concerns of life and instead forms an impenetrable buffer to the outside world.

There is a common accord among coaches and players in assiduously preparing for matches to the exclusion of everything else, where distractions are not permitted or tolerated. It is an insulated, cosseted environment, devoted to rugby.

Camp is a unique place. While you are only a short drive from home, you might as well be in a different country. For a couple of months prior to and during the Six Nations being billeted in Carton House represents a focal point of your life, demanding all your attention, a commitment to which every player must subscribe.

It was the best of times and the worst of times, and I knew both as a player, spanning the extremes of the emotional spectrum whereby you feel capable of taking on the world or are crippled by insecurity, unable to escape the feeling of the hotel room walls closing in, that claustrophobic anxiety.


Players learn to cope because they must, to survive. For the newbies it can seem exciting and exotic but that quickly passes and as each campaign is slightly different a player learns to draw down on previous experiences as they mature to cope with the daily regimen and manage expectations, foisted or self-imposed. There are no distractions and no excuses.

Looking at the backdrop to Saturday’s game against Italy at the Stadio Olimpico, Ireland are where they need to be, two excellent wins against Wales and France tucked into the back pocket and an opportunity if successful in Rome to go gung-ho for the Grand Slam with back-to-back assignments against Scotland in Murrayfield on the Sunday and England in Dublin on Paddy’s weekend.

There is no point in being skittish about the Italian job. That’s not meant to disparage Kieran Crowley’s side but Ireland’s climb to the number one ranking has been achieved by winning matches.

It is not as if it is some nominal award. They won a first ever Test series in New Zealand, beat South Africa, Australia and the Grand Slam champions, France, en route to, and while at, the summit. Andy Farrell, his coaching team and the senior players won’t accept complacency, which would be the only stumbling block to an Irish win in Rome.

Ireland will be calibrated to produce a display of rugby that properly represents the standards driven by everyone involved. Performance produces results and that comes down to being mentally and physically attuned to the task in hand. That’s in the DNA of the best teams and it’s at the very core of their success.

Farrell’s side will look for a dominant 80-minutes that’s reflected on the scoreboard. That’s not to denigrate Italy or to suggest that it is going to be a one-sided affair.

The parameters that Stephen Aboud put in place during his six years there, in developing the player and coaching pathways is not only reflected in the improved success of Italian underage teams but also in delivering quality young talent like Ange Capuozzo and captain Michele Lamaro.

By way of a comparison in advance of the weekend, when France played Italy, Fabien Galthie’s side, with a tiny bit more accuracy, would have wrapped up a four-try, bonus point inside 25 minutes. Ireland’s defence should be more parsimonious and therefore not offer up the 18 penalties that the French handed Italy.

What Farrell’s side can learn from that game is the danger of misfiring on the day. They must respect Italy enough to climb into their opponents in the same way they would any of the top teams in the world.

Saturday’s game doesn’t operate in a vacuum, it has context for the Six Nations, the World Cup and the inner workings of the squad, in terms of the pecking order. At the start of his tenure Farrell drilled down significantly to establish the depth in his playing roster, capping 42 players and handing out 11 Ireland debuts in 2020.

He was an advocate of the Emerging Ireland tour to South Africa which prompted the rise of Jack Crowley and in general terms he has managed to look to the future in personnel terms while maintaining a sharp focus on the next match.

While some of the selections might have felt more conservative than cavalier, depending on taste, no one can fault his decision-making, whether occasionally enforced by injury in the case of Johnny Sexton during the November Test series or Tadhg Furlong, Jamison Gibson-Park and Robbie Henshaw in the Six Nations.

The players that have stepped in have done so to great effect, a fine reflection on their talent and preparation but it also highlights the excellent work of the coaching team. Supporters of Gavin Coombes and Jamie Osborne, to highlight a couple of cause celebres recently, may be frustrated about the lack of opportunities.

The Italian match is probably the last time before the end of the Six Nations that Farrell can look at player rotation or perhaps more accurately look at how a different face here and there might lead to a few tweaks in the game plan.

His decision to recall Joey Carbery to the extended squad suggests that Sexton will not play in Rome. If that is the case, then Ross Byrne should be handed the reins in the 10 jersey. His Test match rehabilitation has been a heart-warming and positive story and he has done all that he has been asked when being introduced during matches as a replacement.

The final challenge that awaits is for him to run the game from the opening whistle, to prove that he can get Ireland firing. He is the epitome of the composed soul when coming off the bench at Test level.

Against France the rhythm and tempo of the game, or more accurately Ireland’s attack, had been drawn up by Sexton. It is a slightly different challenge when you are the one establishing the creative hub in attack. So, there is a double reason to start Byrne in Rome, firstly not risking Ireland’s captain and letting him fully recover from injury and just as importantly allowing Byrne to run the show.

Everyone understands Sexton’s primacy but having faith in his deputy is important for the group. Being able to make that change in a controlled environment is better than having to do so out of necessity. It also allows Byrne to breathe, to be able to point to his performance and go, “I can run the game for 80, 40, 20 whatever’s required.”

It might appear that Farrell is at a crossroads with how he might approach this match. In essence all roads lead to the same destination. It is now just about how he decides to get there.

There was a huge tactical and defence focus against the French, where Ireland’s kicking strategy outmanoeuvred their opponents, and they were able to lock up Antoine Dupont for almost the full match.

The Irish defence was resolute in chasing the inside shoulder of each defender to prevent the offload, a smart change from trying to tie up the ball with extra defenders required to go high which brings its own risks. When France looked like they were about to break free, a crucial offload would be prevented by an Irish player filling the space where the French attacker was expecting to see blue jerseys pilling through.

Italy possess the potential to deliver similar offloads so this approach will likely be deployed again. It would be fair to assume that Ireland’s primary focus will be on their attack this week because as happy as they were with the result against France, Farrell’s side will look back at the number of chances that were created and not scored.

With the two mini breaks either side of this match, it is unlikely that any player will need a rest, so managing injuries and match, or lack of match minutes for players coming into the final two weeks of the championship will be top of the list.

The coaching ticket can have their cake and eat it over the next fortnight. The fact that Furlong, Henshaw and Gibson-Park continue to be micromanaged in terms of their injuries illustrates this point. Farrell has not shied away from making tough selection decisions but has also been fiercely loyal to players and had it returned in spades.

We might focus on the selections, what they mean and the possible implications in the future. What is clear is that Farrell wants to win a championship and Italy in Rome this week will not be taken lightly.

Other coaches have opted for different selection approaches down through the years. It was harder to get out of the team under Eddie O’Sullivan while Joe Schmidt liked to tell players two or three weeks out what games they could expect to feature in. Those philosophies all work until they don’t.

I struggled to break into the team under O’Sullivan until injury and a position change. When I came back from my broken arm in 2009, Declan Kidney opted for Paddy Wallace as a playmaker at 12. Schmidt tried to bring through Luke Marshall and eventually did so with Robbie Henshaw.

Once a coach is honest, you might not like it, but you should respect it. It doesn’t stop you railing against it either. The balance in the current Irish squad seems very healthy. Farrell has got that right too and it would therefore be churlish not to support whatever team he plumps for at the weekend.