History will tell you that’s the one you have to watch out for. Look at New Zealand, who put in their best performance of the 2019 World Cup against us in the quarter-final, before getting blown away by England in the semis. England who, in turn, got dominated by South Africa in the final. Then us again in last year’s World Cup after our outstanding performance against Scotland…
Head coach Andy Farrell will have learned a whole lot from those outcomes as Ireland look to back up that huge win in Marseille last weekend. He’ll be hyper-conscious of controlling the internal narrative to make sure the lads are in the right frame of mind when they take on Italy.
This is probably the perfect game for Ireland in which to come down from the emotional high they reached against France. They’re coming back to their home comforts, and it’s not to face a Scotland or an England. They’ll benefit from not having to expend as much emotional energy against Italy.
Psychology plays a significant role when it comes to a game like this. The great win in France, everybody writing off Italy, people telling the Irish lads how great they are. The genius of Faz is that he’ll get the balance right during the week, honing in on things that the lad could have done better, but also not over-emphasising them because quite clearly there was some top-class stuff that he won’t want them to lose sight of that either.
We’ll find out in those first 10 to 15 minutes how Ireland’s preparation will have gone. It will be evident in the collisions, the energy, the team’s shape. Equally, we might see Italy’s intent early on and, frankly, if they can make the first half-hour an arm wrestle, that would be a success for them – getting to half-time in touching distance.
This game being in Dublin stacks the odds against Italy. They put a lot of emotion into that England performance, and with a mix-and-match Irish team full of players given an opportunity to put a marker down in the Irish jersey, it’s going to be a hard day for the visitors.
If you want any chance of winning those top-level Test matches, you need four or five players to have world-class performances. If they do that, it elevates everything, making their teammates look and feel good. It’s contagious and that’s what Ireland had in Marseille.
If Italy were to have any chance in Dublin, they’d need their best players to have moments like the one Monty Ioane had against England: a freak athlete scoring a freak try, fighting to the death till the last play of the game.
Ioane is an unbelievable athlete who I always hated coming up against. He’s as strong, physical and abrasive a winger as you’ll find in the world game. Just an unbelievable athlete. He’ll run over you if he feels that’s the right option, or he’ll use his speed, or his fend. If every one of Italy’s best players have impacts in that first quarter, it might sow a seed of doubt in the Irish players’ minds, “maybe this is going to be tougher than we thought”.
Stepping into the fly-half spot previously occupied so famously by Johnny Sexton, Jack Crowley impressed me a lot in Marseille – and not for obvious reasons. You should never chase perfection, and Jack made a few mistakes that were relatively close together. What he didn’t do was go into himself after that, which is a really impressive skillset for a 24-year-old in that situation to have. For him to keep getting involved and show that mental toughness when the game was so in the balance was terrific. And it didn’t surprise me either.
Ireland bring in Craig Casey at scrum-half and I’m delighted for him. I’ve been close to him and know how he eager he is to lay down a marker in Test rugby. He’s been champing at the bit and he’ll understand this is a huge one for him, because it’s a different ball game when you’re starting rather than coming off the bench. I feel like he’s going to make big statement, and he deserves this chance with his body of work and how he keeps setting standards in training even when not selected.
When I look back on the times I played Italy in my career, the game we played in Chicago in 2018 stands out. I hadn’t played out there against New Zealand in that famous match in 2016, which had been such a success the IRFU wanted to go back. It was very strange being over in the US playing against Italy, but it was brilliant to be able to experience that – especially since I almost didn’t make it there.
The previous weekend I’d had to drop out of a Munster game because I was sick as a dog. I thought it was just my luck if I was going to miss another Chicago trip, being only seven games into my Ireland career and Test opportunities so scarce. Being ill then jumping onto a flight didn’t help, and I knew that if I divulged to the medics how poorly I felt, I would have been pulled from the trip.
Putting my head down and just getting through the week was my main challenge. As it turned out, I didn’t have much to do in the game (Jordan Larmour stole the show with a hat-trick), but it went okay. Sometimes it’s important to just suck it up, whether it’s your best game or not can’t be helped at times. It’s about getting out there and putting the jersey on, digging in and showing how much you want it.
Andrew Conway scored at least one try in 10 of his 30 Tests for Ireland (15 tries in total), with Ireland recording a 100% win rate when he got on the scoresheet.