Azzurri to provide stern test for Ireland
Roman holiday unlikely from improving Italy
Italy celebrate a try against England during the Six Nations match at Twickenham on Sunday. Photograph: Tim Ireland/PA Wire.
An estimated 10-12,000 Irish supporters are expected in the Eternal City by the Italian Federation for next Saturday’s biannual trek to Rome.
This revives memories of the last time this fixture was a St Patrick’s Day finale in 2007 when a sun-drenched Blarney Army of 15,000-plus helped turn the Stadio Flaminio into a near Irish carnival as Ireland made a bold bid for the title with a 51-24 win. Admittedly, of course, there may be another minor matter of interest for the visiting Irish hordes, but this St Patrick’s Day will scarcely compare with six years ago.
For starters, Ireland will become the last Six Nations visitors to the 74,000 capacity Stadio Olimpico since Italy moved there for last season’s tournament. And the Azzurri have averaged 66,000 in their five games at the home of Roma and Lazio as compared to the homely if humble Flaminio (capacity 38,000). The forecast is alo for unremitting rain in Rome all week.
Italy were unlucky not to beat England in their first game there, having led 12-6 and by two tries to nil at half-time only to be beaten by a Charlie Hodgson chargedown try, they subsequently beat Scotland there and, of course, France this season. The 42-10 defeat to New Zealand, a week after losing by 22-19 to Australia, was distorted by the concession of three tries in the last 13 minutes. On a sodden day in Rome, the teams were better off without the ball than with it, and Wales won by dint of their scrum and defence.
Potent scrum and maul
Six years ago, Italy were coming off successive wins over Scotland and Wales
, but there was a sense that they had already achieved a high of four points for the first time.
There are also more strings to their bow now under Jacques Brunel, with caution having given way to adventure. Under John Kirwan and then Nick Mallett, Italy relied on potent scrum and maul, and played plenty of one-off rugby and territory. Brunel has sought to revive their overt French influence, á la George Costes in the late 1990s, whose golden generation oversaw three successive wins over Ireland.
A place-kicking return of 52 last season undid much of their good work in last season's tournament, when Italy made more off-loads than anyone else and kicked less than Wales, England and Ireland. Most strikingly, when the opposition turn over the ball deep in Italian territory nowadays, their first instinct under Brunel is to counter with the ball in hand.
Gallop over untouched
This manifested itself within two minutes of their opener at home to France, Italy going through 13 phases and France attacking off a turnover only for Luke Mclean counter-attacked off a Frédéric Michalak kick before Luciano Orquera released Sergio Parisse to gallop over untouched. The ball had been in play for two minutes and six seconds.