Italy v Ireland, Stadio Olimpico, Rome, Sunday 4pm local time/3pm Irish.
On TV: Live on ITV (UK), Virgin Media (Ireland).
Ireland haven't hit their straps yet. They know it better than anyone, and that, more than anything, is their base requirement from this latest Italian job in order to finish off the 2019 Guinness Six Nations with a flourish in a World Cup year.
Their preparations appear to have been less than ideal given minor injuries to Jack Conan, Joey Carbery and Jordan Larmour, with others not up to match speed after returning from training.
Coupled with the need to rest those most in need of one, ie Rory Best, Cian Healy and, most of all, the indomitable James Ryan, the net effect is four changes, as forecast here, and all up front.
Such are the vagaries of understudying the skipper that the 32-year-old Seán Cronin is afforded a first Six Nations start after making his previous 32 appearances off the bench, while David Kilcoyne, Ultan Dillane and Jordi Murphy also start, with Jack McGrath, Niall Scannell, John Ryan and Iain Henderson recalled to the bench. While it's an unchanged backline, Andrew Conway and the uncapped Jack Carty are named amongst the replacements.
There’s still a good mix of continuity, experience and leadership, all infused with some seriously hungry players, and Schmidt himself declared the squad have trained very well since the restorative win in Scotland.
Speaking at the squad’s Carton House base yesterday before departing for the Eternal City, top of Schmidt’s wish list is, he said: “I think continuity, cohesion, and an abrasive edge because we’re going to have to have that as we have no doubt that’s what they’re going to bring.
“If we can get that cohesion and that continuity, that would be outstanding for us, and that abrasiveness that we’re going to need to look after our ball really well. We’re going to have to make sure we shut down their opportunities really well.
“They’re playing with some really impressive width and the tries that they have scored when you look back at that Scotland game, that Wales game, you cannot afford to give them too much latitude because they’ll take that with both hands.”
Even if he’s not the dynamic force of yore, it’s a pity that Sergio Parisse’s concussion sidelines the tournament’s most capped player for a 17th meeting with Ireland in possibly his last Six Nations.
Flanker Sebastian Negri (illness) has also been ruled out, so Maxime Mbandà and Jimmy Tuivaiti are recalled and their form player, Braam Steyn, moves to number eight. Lock Federico Ruzza earns a first start, loose head Andrea Lovotti has recovered from flu and Conor O'Shea's team have been further strengthened by the return from injury of Tito Tebaldi.
Ian McKinley is again included among the replacements to renew some old Irish Under-20 and Leinster acquaintances.
When you think about it, it’s doubtful rugby has witnessed a more mentally spirited team than these Italians. For a team who have seemingly forgotten how to win, they never seem to know when they’re beaten.
Consider they trailed Scotland 33-3 entering the last ten minutes at Murrayfield, so condemned to an 18th successive Six Nations defeat. Many teams in their place would have been entitled to pack their bags. Instead they scored three tries, akin to their finish against Ireland last season.
In round two, they trailed Wales by 9-0 at home and withstood a 17-phase barrage on their own line. Losing 12-0, with their first foray into enemy territory, they eschewed a certain three-pointer and were rewarded with a converted try by the outstanding Steyn. Even trailing 26-10 inside the last ten minutes and consigned to a 19th successive tournament loss, Tommaso Allan created a fine try for Edoardo Padavani.
They just keep coming at you.
Come kick-off Ireland’s interest in retaining their title will either be moderately revived by a Welsh victory or effectively extinguished by an English win in Cardiff this afternoon.
Schmidt declined to even venture how he’d spend a free bet if offered one for charity.
“I don’t gamble,” he said, before admitting: “I do like the horses, [BUT]I’m not actually allowed to bet on rugby, it’s outside the World Rugby protocols so I’m sorry, I can’t answer that question.”
However he ventured that Wales are not "playing the same team without Maro Itoje and Mako Vunipola", and pointing to Wales' good home record, added: "I don't think they will give England the entry points in the air that we gave them.
“I’m looking forward to watching the game and the same with the other game. I sound like I’m distracted by those games, but I’ve enough on my plate.”
Indeed Ireland have an important job to do in extending their winning run over the Azzurri to eight games and their carrying game oughtn’t to be diminished when you consider what Kilcoyne, Cronin and Dillane can add to the mix.
Given quicker ruck ball, this should be a gilt-edged opportunity for Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton, in their 50th Test start together for Ireland, to rectify some of the glitches and retain more shape in Ireland's phased game. Then, the earlier John Cooney and Jack Carty are introduced, out of choice, will be a barometer of the Irish performance.
That said, Ireland weren’t a million miles away from a bonus point win in Murrayfield. While they mightn’t run up another half-century of points, with Rome sharing Ireland’s fine springtime weather, a feel-good, bonus point win should be within the visitors compass.
ITALY: Jayden Hayward (Benetton); Edoardo Padovani (Zebre), Michele Campagnaro (Wasps), Luca Morisi (Benetton), Angelo Esposito (Benetton); Tommaso Allan (Benetton), Tito Tebaldi (Benetton); Andrea Lovotti (Zebre), Leonardo Ghiraldini (Toulouse, capt), Simone Ferrari (Benetton); Federico Ruzza (Benetton), Dean Budd (Benetton); Jimmy Tuivaiti (Zebre), Maxime Mbandà (Zebre), Braam Steyn (Benetton).
Replacements: Luca Bigi (Benetton), Cherif Traoré (Benetton), Tiziano Pasquali (Benetton), David Sisi (Zebre), Alessandro Zanni (Benetton), Guglielmo Palazzani (Zebre), Ian McKinley (Benetton), Tommaso Castello (Zebre).
IRELAND: Rob Kearney (Leinster); Keith Earls (Munster), Chris Farrell (Munster), Bundee Aki (Connacht), Jacob Stockdale (Ulster); Jonathan Sexton (Leinster), Conor Murray (Munster); Dave Kilcoyne (Munster), Seán Cronin (Leinster), Tadhg Furlong (Leinster); Ultan Dillane (Connacht), Quinn Roux (Connacht); Peter O'Mahony (Munster, capt), Seán O'Brien (Leinster), Jordi Murphy (Ulster).
Replacements: Niall Scannell (Munster), Jack McGrath (Leinster), John Ryan (Munster), Iain Henderson (Ulster), Josh van der Flier (Leinster), John Cooney (Ulster), Jack Carty (Connacht), Andrew Conway (Munster).
Referee: Glen Jackson (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Wayne Barnes (England), Karl Dickson (England)
Television match official: Graham Hughes (England)
Overall head to head record: Played 29, Italy 4 wins, Ireland 25 wins.
Last five meetings: (2015, RWC) Ireland 16 Italy 9. (2016, 6N) Ireland 58 Italy 15. (2017, 6N) Italy 10 Ireland 63. (2018, 6N) Ireland 56 Italy 19. (2019, test) Ireland 54 Italy 7.
Betting (Paddy Power) 22/1 Italy, 70/1 Draw, 1/80 Ireland. Handicap odds (Italy +30pts) 10/11 Italy, 22/1 Draw, 10/11 Ireland.
Forecast: Ireland to win with a bonus point.