La Rochelle’s New Zealand-born Atonio wreaked havoc in the scrum during a second-half cameo in France’s 15-8 victory over Scotland in their RBS Six Nations opener.
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Experienced tighthead Ross also believes Joe Schmidt’s side will face a seething France at the Aviva Stadium, with Les Bleus still smarting from Ireland’s 22-20 win in Paris last year.
“France are very proud of their scrummaging,” said Ross, in the wake of Ireland’s 26-3 win in Italy. “We put in a good shift against them last year: they’ll be remembering that and looking to put pressure on us at home. They will hold onto what happened last year because it’s a huge pride thing for them. Some French lads can get really fired up if the scrum’s not going well for them, so you have to be ready for the battle.
“It’s always tough against them, there’s a few guys changed in their team but they will still be a massive test in the scrum. Nicolas Mas has missed out but they’ve got Rabah Slimani and an absolute monster in Atonio on the bench for a bit of impact.”
Ross revealed relief at retaining his Test place despite slipping behind Ireland rival Marty Moore at Leinster – but admitted he remains keen not to test “ruthless” head coach Schmidt’s patience.
He said: “I had a big task on my shoulders in Italy, Joe gave me the responsibility of starting and he didn’t have to do that, so a big performance was required. I think it went well and that’s good for the confidence, but at the same time Joe’s pretty ruthless, and if you don’t deliver then his faith in you will only run so far.”
Ireland were able to withstand the challenge of Italy’s much-vaunted front-row, with talisman Martin Castrogiovanni neatly contained.
Ross offered a compelling insight into life at the coal face, where the all-important tighthead anchors the set-piece by fending off attacks from all angles. “There’s a lot of pressure, a hell of a lot of pressure,” said Ross. “Paulie’s [O’Connell] behind me giving it socks, you’ve got the hooker attacking your left shoulder, you’ve got the loosehead trying to come up under your right shoulder and you just have to sink and absorb that.”
Ireland nullified Italy on the try front in Saturday’s win at the Stadio Olimpico, but were only a fingertip away from conceding a score to Kelly Haimona.
Italy captain Sergio Parisse insists he did not touch the loose bouncing ball that eventually found its way to stand-off Haimona to dive home. The officials deemed otherwise after reviewing video footage however, judging a knock-on by the slightest of touches from the Stade Francais No 8.
Ross believes that slice of fortune may work in Ireland’s favour as the tournament unfolds – especially if points difference comes into the title equation.
“We’ll take that and move on,” said Ross of Haimona’s chalked-off score. “We probably got a little bit lucky with the try being ruled out, and you don’t know how crucial that could end up to be at the end of the Six Nations.”
Scorers: Italy: Pen: Haimona. Ireland: Tries: Murray, O’Donnell. Cons: Keatley, Madigan. Pens: Keatley 4.
Italy: Masi; Sarto, Campagnaro, Morisi, McLean; Haimona, Gori; Aguero, Ghiraldini, Castrogiovanni, Furno, Biagi, Zanni, Minto, Parisse. Subs: Venditti for Masi (76), Allan for Campagnaro (63), De Marchi for Aguero (52), Chistolini for Castrogiovanni (68), Barbini for Zanni (46), Manici for Minto (68), Fuser for Barbini (67). Not Used: Palazzani. Sin Bin: Ghiraldini (63).
Ireland: R. Kearney; Bowe, Payne, Henshaw, Zebo; Keatley, Murray; McGrath, Best, Ross, Toner, O’Connell, O’Mahony, O’Donnell, Murphy. Subs: Jones for Bowe (67), Madigan for Keatley (65), Boss for Murray (68), J. Cronin for McGrath (67), S. Cronin for Best (46), Moore for Ross (51). Not Used: Henderson, Diack.