Ireland coach Andy Farrell has urged his backs to show the ‘X-factor’ quality he believes they possess during the remainder of a 2021 Six Nations Championship that has started so badly for his side.
Even with a lion’s share of possession, Ireland have struggled to make inroads into opposing defences during recent defeats by Wales and France.
Ireland, partly as a result of that blunt cutting edge, now head to Italy in a fortnight having lost the opening two matches of a Six Nations campaign for the first time in their history.
By contrast, the attacking play of France scrum-half Antoine Dupont and Wales wing Louis Rees-Zammit has been central to their teams making an unbeaten start to this edition.
Dupont was at the heart of France’s 15-13 victory over Ireland in Dublin on February 14 and Rees-Zammit was named man-of-the-match for his two-try performance as Wales beat 14-man Scotland 25-24.
Ireland finished a modest third in last year’s Six Nations but ended that Championship as joint-top try-scorers with 17.
But two games in 2021 have yielded just two tries in total, both scored by forwards.
“It is something I keep talking to them about,” Farrell told Irish media after the France match.
“It is something that rose up at half-time, certainly to the backs, that sometimes for all your best-laid plans it can be about somebody grabbing hold of the game and making something happen,” the former dual code international added.
The Englishman, however, is confident Ireland do have men capable of equalling the likes of Dupont and Rees-Zammit when it comes to producing ‘X-factor’ moments of match-turning brilliance.
“Have we got those players? I think we have,” he said.
“You see Garry Ringrose cutting through time and time again, you see Hugo [Keenan] is making good strides there, we know what Keith Earls has certainly done in the past for Ireland.
“Robbie [Henshaw] is in sensational form and you have Jordan [Larmour] who is able to break any defence down.
“So yeah, I think we have.”
Farrell’s results in his first year in charge had been judged “acceptable” by the Irish Rugby Football Union.
Although the 44-year-old can point to extenuating circumstances for both defeats this season, nothing less than a convincing victory over perennial strugglers Italy will help ease the mounting pressure.
Tough matches follow, with a trip away to Scotland before Ireland complete their campaign at home to England.
While Ireland’s title hopes have all but evaporated, Farrell wants them to finish with a flourish.
“Three victories and that’s what we expect of ourselves,” he said.
“We’ll have to show our character now. It is full steam ahead for Italy as they are the first up.”
Farrell said Ireland were making progress but that poor finishing meant the improvement had yet to be reflected in their results.
“I think more of our game is coming together,” he insisted.
“It was quite pleasing in the first half our set-piece, and I think our breakdown has come along a hell of a lot as well.”
Farrell said he was not sure if France had moved ahead of them after several years when Ireland could claim to be the stronger side.
February 14’s result meant the French had beaten the Irish in successive Six Nations for the first time since 2010-2011 and Farrell reckoned his side could learn from Les Bleus when it came to closing out a match.
“They [France] are on the upward curve aren’t they regarding their performances and they are gaining a bit of confidence,” he said.
“They are learning how to grind games out . . . They came out on the right side [against Ireland] and obviously that’s something we need to address.”