JOE Schmidt believes England set the RBS 6 Nations “benchmark” with victory over Wales, leaving Ireland already chasing to keep up and hold on to their title.
Ireland boss Schmidt believes his side must improve “between 30 and 40 per cent” from their 26-3 win over Italy to stand any chance of reaching England’s early level.
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Former schoolteacher Schmidt offered up a must-do-better report after tries from Conor Murray and Tommy O’Donnell while Leonardo Ghiraldini was in the sin-bin sealed victory in Rome.
“The benchmark was set by England last night: England just kept the pressure right on Wales and the physical nature of that battle means we’ve got a bit of work to do without a doubt,” said Schmidt.
“And we’ll have to roll up our sleeves and hopefully put together a sufficiently-improved performance to be competitive against France.
“We were between 30 and 40 per cent off that against Italy: we wouldn’t have lived with them last night. And I thought Wales were pretty good.
“For us we certainly need to up our game. I do think that part of it was the pressure Italy put on us but, at the same time, I know we can do better than that and we’re going to have to.
Luckless flanker Sean O’Brien suffered a hamstring injury in the warm-up and was forced out of his first Test action since November 2013.
Ireland boss Schmidt lamented O’Brien’s loss, with the Leinster back-rower only just fit after 14 months of shoulder problems.
Schmidt remains hopeful that O’Brien will be fit to face France in Dublin next weekend however, with hooker Rory Best also expected to be available.
Best was withdrawn in the second half as a precaution after taking a knock to the head.
“It was the very last thing Sean did in the warm-up: he just put his foot down, it slid out from under him and he twinged his hamstring,” said Schmidt of O’Brien.
“His power’s really good, it was probably a marginal decision at the time, but we didn’t want a repeat of what happened when we came here last time where we lost a few.
“It was great he was able to be replaced by Tommy O’Donnell and the manner Tommy played.
“I’d be hopeful, I’d be quietly confident, but we will scan him when we get back to Dublin, probably tomorrow evening.
“Rory’s fine, he got a knock and we decided to err on the side of caution with him. He’ll follow the return-to-play protocols, just because we want to be fairly careful there.”
Schmidt admitted he felt 27-year-old Six Nations debutant Ian Keatley was “nervous”, but praised the Munster man’s flawless goal-kicking.
Keatley’s four penalties kept Ireland in front in the stodgy, try-less first hour at the Stadio Olimpico. “Obviously he kicked 100 per cent from the tee and that allowed us to establish some scoreboard pressure, and without that it would have been difficult,” said Schmidt.
“In the game I felt at times he was probably a little nervous at times and we’ll have a chat about that.
“That experience will help him acquit himself in the future.”
Flanker Alessandro Zanni and centre Michele Campagnaro are doubts for Italy’s clash with England next weekend.
Italy bosses confirmed both men suffered knee problems against Ireland and will face further assessment.
Italy captain Sergio Parisse called on the Azzurri to overhaul their failing lineout or face serious punishment against the English at Twickenham. “We only had 30 per cent possession and that’s not enough,” said Parisse.
“I didn’t think Ireland put us under huge pressure but they were better in the lineout and they had the ball most of the time.
“You can’t defend for 80 minutes against a team like Ireland.
“Next week we must improve our lineouts and have more possession if we want to be competitive at Twickenham.”
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: Manici, De Marchi, Chistolini, Fuser, Barbini, Palazzani, Allan, Venditti.
Ireland: R Kearney; Bowe, Payne, Henshaw, Zebo; Keatley, Murray; McGrath, Best, Ross, Toner, O’Connell, O’Mahony, O’Brien, Murphy. Subs: S Cronin, J Cronin, Moore, Henderson, O’Donnell, Boss, Madigan, Jones.
Referee: Pascal Gauzere (France). Attendance: 57,700.