Jack Conan has revealed Ireland spent their first Six Nations down week getting back to basics in a bid to recapture the edge that underpinned their stellar 2018.
The Leinster back-row forward believes Joe Schmidt’s men are already reaping the benefits of a period of fine-tuning in a week without the need to analyse an upcoming opponent.
Head coach Schmidt could well now select a strong line-up for Sunday’s Guinness Six Nations trip to Italy, to seize momentum from that extended training stint.
Johnny Sexton is expected to start at fly-half, with Ireland hunting a performance worthy of their world number-two status.
“I think the rest week gave us a good opportunity to go back to our basics, without having to focus on another side,” said Conan.
“Going up against England or Scotland, the whole week is trying to get your own detail sorted and then worrying about what they’re doing.
“The off weeks are a chance to look inward and to try to improve what we’re doing. I think there’s been a lot of growth last week and even the start of this week.
“We’re in a good spot and looking forward to a good day on Sunday.”
Ireland swept the board en route to just their third-ever Grand Slam in last year’s Six Nations, before seeing off back-to-back world champions New Zealand 19-9 in Dublin in November.
England’s muscular 32-20 triumph in Dublin knocked Ireland off that perch however, in an immediate blow at the top of this year’s Six Nations campaign.
A stuttering 22-13 victory in Scotland at least had Ireland back to winning ways, but Conan – and the rest of the Ireland set-up – know big improvements are needed, and fast.
“I think we’re getting better; obviously, it was a slow start against England and not the finished article against Scotland.
“We’re pushing to be better again this weekend. A trip to Rome is a good opportunity to showcase that.
“The lads are feeling refreshed and feeling good. I think it will stand to them and we’ll undoubtedly be hitting the ground running this week.”
British and Irish Lions fly-half Sexton has long since shaken off the head-injury scare he suffered in the Saturday, February 9 win in Scotland.
The 33-year-old was withdrawn after just 24 minutes and amid a barrage of physical treatment from the Scots.
Munster’s Joey Carbery ran the show for the rest of the game, and given his extended run-out at Murrayfield he may well now take a seat on the bench in Rome.
Locks Iain Henderson and Tadhg Beirne are fit and available having missed the start of the tournament due to injuries.
Ireland have consistently put their below-par performances down to inaccuracy in their two Six Nations contests so far.
And Conan admits that has still been the focus of their refinements behind the scenes.
“It wasn’t there when we needed it against England,” said Conan of that elusive accuracy.
“I think we improved against Scotland. This weekend will be about taking opportunities when they arise.
“We’ve looked at clips on the tries we scored last year (against Italy); Dan Leavy makes a turnover and Bundee Aki makes a break and puts Keith Earls away in the corner.
“It’s about maximising the opportunities where we’re capitalising on the times that we can score tries.”