Joe Schmidt admitted Ireland’s nine-try thumping of Italy “released the pressure valve” amid a testing RBS 6 Nations campaign.
Ireland romped past the Azzurri 58-15 in Dublin on Saturday, for their first Six Nations win at the fourth attempt despite entering the tournament as defending champions.
Taskmaster boss Schmidt took no chances whatsoever in fielding the strongest available side, then staunchly defended that selection in light of Ireland’s Aviva Stadium cakewalk.
Ireland host Scotland in Dublin on Saturday bidding to salvage a mid-table finish after surrendering their title in defeats to England and France, and the opening draw against Wales.
“We finally released the pressure valve, which was important,” said Schmidt.
“I know that people question decisions I might make or the way we might play: but I guarantee I question that more.
“I’m always trying to think about how best we can utilise the resources we have, how we can best exert pressure on the opponents we have.
“And that’s the challenge for coaches, also to keep things fresh, to challenge players.
“When you’ve got a squad of 34 in camp you’ve got 34 individuals to try make sure they are as collective as they can be.
“They are all questions you ask yourself.
“I rely a huge amount on the leadership group, the players with experience, to give a bit of feedback, even on other players, how they are adapting and fitting in.
“They might speak to them more often than I do, because I don’t want to intimidate players or annoy them by talking to them all the time.
“It’s always something you’re looking back at, trying to reflect on and raise the bar if you can.”
Jamie Heaslip bagged a brace in Ireland’s third-largest victory over Italy, with Andrew Trimble, Jack McGrath, CJ Stander, Jared Payne, Sean Cronin, Ian Madigan and Fergus McFadden also crossing.
Schmidt confirmed Ireland expect to have Cian Healy, Eoin Reddan and Rob Kearney all fit for the final Six Nations clash with Scotland.
Both Healy and Kearney missed out against Italy with hamstring issues, while Reddan has carried a calf problem.
Ireland’s vast injury catalogue forced Schmidt to target a mid-table finish as a reasonable return ahead of the tournament, despite tasting back-to-back successes in 2014 and 2015.
The former Leinster boss will breathe easier in light of Ireland’s first win in five matches, especially with three summer Tests against South Africa and two autumn meetings with New Zealand ahead.
Schmidt said the quick progress of blossoming talents like Josh Van der Flier and Ultan Dillane can hand Ireland cause for optimism despite a frustrating sequence of results.
“It’s really tough to consider reasonable returns, because we always want a little more than that,” said Schmidt.
“We’re really disappointed and I know other people are that we haven’t met the expectation that we have of ourselves, because it’s an Ireland jersey, and Ireland team, regardless of who’s got that jersey.
“What would be really reasonable for us and what we will hopefully profit from in the future is that we’ve had a couple of guys emerge that we’re really excited about.
“Guys who’ve said ‘look, this guy may usually have this jersey, but I’ve actually done quite well in it, and I’d like to keep my hand up and I’d like it back’.
“The perfect scenario is when you get competition within a squad.
“And if there’s guys who have emerged a bit, and are challenging players for their positions, then that would be a reasonable return.
“If we can get into that third or fourth spot, in the context of where we are right now, that would be a really positive return.”
Italy’s limp defeat set the Azzurri in line for their 11th Wooden Spoon in 17 years, with a trip to Wales ahead next weekend.
Captain Sergio Parisse insisted Italy still warrant their automatic place in the competition, well aware the likes of Georgia and Romania are pressing hard for a two-tier set-up with promotion and relegation.
“It’s a question that always comes up when Italy lose matches,” said Parisse when asked if Italy still merit automatic Six Nations inclusion.
“But I still think we really deserve to play in this tournament, if you look at some of the wins we’ve produced in recent years.”