Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt on Sunday was relieved to come away from Italy with a bonus-point 26-16 win, but knows his side face an uphill struggle to retain their Six Nations title.
Italy led 16-12 at halftime after a labored start by the visitors, but Ireland turned the game on its head in the second half as tries from Keith Earls and Conor Murray secured the victory.
The result leaves Ireland, who won the Grand Slam last year, in third place on nine points ahead of their final two fixtures.
“There is a sense of relief,” Schmidt told a post-match news conference. “We didn’t play as well as we would have liked, and we were 16-12 down at halftime and up against an Italian side that have proven in this competition that they’re tough to beat. Last time it wasn’t that dissimilar for Wales, or when they [Italy] were away in Scotland, they finished that game really strongly.”
“When players don’t get an early touch in the game that’s positive, that frustration accumulates and unfortunately for us we weren’t cohesive enough throughout that first half,” he said. “Even in the second half, we did enough to win and I’m proud of the players, the way that they stayed calm enough to make sure we got the win, we got the five points and that was what we needed from the game.”
Ireland are now one point behind England and three adrift of leaders Wales in the race for the Six Nations title.
They host France at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin in two weeks, before traveling to Cardiff on the final weekend.
“We’re still obviously on the back foot,” Schmidt said. “England have got 10 points and didn’t get a bonus point yesterday, which opens the door a little bit for us. Wales are in the strongest position now, they’ve won three out of three, they won away in France, they’ve only got the game in Scotland now to play away from home and then us back in Cardiff. That is going to be a huge match for us.”
“We need to make sure that over the next few weeks we keep building,” he said. “There will be a few guys who come in and out, obviously, in the buildup to the France game and then we’ve got to put in a better performance together because France looked like they’ve built a bit yesterday. That’s going to be tough for us.”
France beat Scotland 27-10 on Saturday.
Italy suffered a record 20th consecutive defeat in the Six Nations, but head coach Conor O’Shea said he had seen promising signs, despite their failure to earn a point in the competition so far this season.
“We felt that we’ve begun to incline the level of performance that we’ve had in the first couple of games, and wanted to go out there and play and create, in terms of the intensity we play with,” O’Shea said. “That’s the reason you see some errors from both sides, we tried to push the boundaries with the way were trying to play and we wanted to play. We look at errors, things we can do well.”
“We live in an immediate world, it’s another easy article for lazy people to write about Italy if they want to, but we’re a proud nation and, like Ireland in the 1990s, we’ll continue to build,” he added. “I just want to do what’s right for Italy, create good habits and good structure.”
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