For some in the Ireland rugby team, these could be the last days in Rome
Kidney’s future is in doubt and this may be Brian O’Driscoll’s final game for Ireland
As dead rubbers go there could be plenty at stake here. The sun in the Roman air, a capacity Olympic Stadium and while both are out of the title running, Ireland can finish anywhere from third to sixth and Italy from fourth to sixth. And as impression is everything, that could go some way to determining a few futures.
For starters, the future of Declan Kidney and the rest of the coaching ticket, although contracted up to and including the summer to the Americas, is likely to be resolved within the next few weeks. Today’s proceedings, though distinctly secondary to the title shoot-out in Cardiff, may also contribute to some Lions’ selections.
There is also the increasingly possibility that this could be Brian O'Driscoll’s last game in the most stellar of Irish Test careers, what with the first of two testimonial dinner taking place in London on Monday night, and the emotional presence of his family last week.
Yesterday’s pre-match build-up had begun with Andrea Lo Cicero, who last week overtook Alesandro Troncon as Italy’s most capped player with 102 caps, duly confirming his retirement at the end of the season at an emotional press conference. This prompted the first of two rounds of applause from the media, while a tribute from Sergio Parisse also forced a few tears from the loosehead prop before Parisse vowed that this will provide further motivation for the Azzurri.
There were no tears at the ensuing Irish press conference in the Stadio Olimpico, but although O’Driscoll’s playing future hasn’t been discussed much within the squad, there’s an awareness that this might be a landmark and poignant day in what will be his 60th championship game.
“We all grow and having seen Brian at the early stage of his career and the prodigious talent that he was to the legend that he is now, I was fortunate to be around to see it,” said Anthony Foley. “An excellent team-mate, an excellent man to coach, he’s as hard as nails, he’s a privilege to have in your squad and I don’t think you’d ever take it for granted when you’ve guys like that in your squad. You cherish them when you have them because you’ll be a long time missing them."
As an aside, Foley also confirmed that Jonny Sexton’s torn foot tendon could sideline him for four to six weeks. Aside from meaning Leinster have lost both of their first choice halfbacks at a key juncture of the season it means he won't have any more game time before the Lions’ squad is announced. One imagines though that he is one of the few for whom that oughtn’t to affect his selection.
For all Ireland’s injury woes – there are about a dozen internationalssidelined – Foley said the spirit remains strong.
Last week’s evidence of that offers hope in advance of what certainly looks to be Ireland’s trickiest Italian job since their entry into the championship in 2000. The forecast is encouraging too, as missing some heavy hitters this has become a dry track Irish team. The presence of Wayne Barnes, who has overseen just one Irish win out of six matches, adds a sizeable caveat, as there is liable to be a higher penalty count and a messier time at the scrums and at the breakdown.
For sure stopping Parisse in his tracks early on will be central to neutralising the Azzuri and his backrow partner Alessandro Zanni, who is their best offloader. Otherwise Parisse could be an inspiration for home team and crowd alike, but Ireland have often forced him into his habit of simply trying too hard, whereupon his head can drop too.
One of the other key men for Italy is assuredly Luciano Orquera, who’s been hit and miss but something of a revelation all the same. He's a much unfairly pilloried player, primarily on account of his tackling, or rather the lack of it. Hence, they tend to hide him on the wing or even at fullback, with Andrea Masi (who Nick Mallett tried to make into an outhalf primarily because none of his outhalves would tackle) stepping into the line and Luke McLean reverting to his customary position of fullback.
But, particularly off front foot ball, Orquera can be a very creative player, be it a clinical eye for spotting an isolated frontrower in the defensive line, his passing and offloading, or his inventive kicking. Orquera has been creator in chief of three of Italy’s four tries with a slashing break and try-scoring pass, brilliant offload out of a double tackle when stepping in to scrumhalf and with a perfectly weighted cross kick.
Italy have offloaded more than anyone, but they can be defensively ragged when they cough up possession themselves. By contrast, they keep their shape superbly off phases, rarely committing more than one or two to the tackle area and quickly fanning out. The point has been made that the close-in rumblers such as Seán O’Brien, Peter O’Mahony and Cian Healy will be crucial, all the more so if O’Brien can free his hands.
Every year we wonder if Italy are finally going to lay their Irish bogey. And rarely have their chances looked so favourable. Yet maybe Ireland have enough in them to dilute what is likely to be plenty of Italian passionata and delay that day a while longer.