Ireland unlikely to get anything easy off Italy
Reigning champions are in form but depleted as they face tough task in Rome
Ireland outhalf Ian Keatley practices his set-pieces at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome on the eve of the Six Nations encounter with Italy. Much will depend on his kicking in the clash against the Azzurri. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho.
The rain may have been slightly dampening the spirits of the initial Irish contingent of supporters cum sight-seers walking the narrow cobble-stoned streets of the Eternal City until they dropped, but come kick-off the sun is forecast to shine and all of them will expect Ireland to take the first steps toward retaining their Six Nations title.
Conventional wisdom also has it that meeting the Azzurri on the opening weekend in Rome constitutes the most difficult circumstances in which to bump into the Azzurri. Furthermore, with Les Kiss yesterday confirming that Johnny Sexton has received the all-clear to resume playing next week, and with Jamie Heaslip, Cian Healy and Eoin Reddan also set to return, the feeling that Ireland will assuredly only grow stronger as the championship progresses is hard to resist.
That quartet have 221 Irish caps between them, whereas their four “understudies” per se – Jack McGrath, Jordi Murphy, Ian Keatley and Isaas Boss – have played a cumulative 39 Tests.
However, if Ireland can make a statement with a convincing win, it could be a blessing in disguise at the outset of the championship and a World Cup year. Ireland are more dependent than most upon about five or six key players, and to win without their backrow standard-bearer and chief playmaker would underline the squad’s depth.
Besides, as Paul O’Connell yesterday maintained, this was not about getting a win at all costs. “I don’t think so. I think we want to progress. We’ve no doubt this will be a really tough game. Italy are at their best here in Rome, they are at their best in the first game of the championship, so we know it’s going to be an incredibly tough game. If it’s a tight game all well and good, but we still want to progress from where we were in the autumn.
To heighten the sense of nervous anticipation within the squad’s ranks, all have cited Ireland’s only previous trek to the Stadio Olimpico two seasons ago when Italy recorded their first Six Nations win over Ireland in 14 attempts. It’s also true Italy have won three opening day matches at home, against Scotland in 2000, Wales in 2003 and France two seasons ago.
They also extended Ireland to a 13-11 win on this weekend four years ago at the Stadio Flaminio when the visitors were indebted to one of those last-ditch Ronan O’Gara drop goals, yet that was also one of five opening defeats at home, to go with seven opening losses away.
Since Ireland’s loss here, Italy have won just twice, against Fiji and Samoa. Indeed, in terms of form guides, whereas Italy have won just once in their last dozen Tests, Ireland come into this game having won nine of their last 10 and seeking to emulate the class of 2008/’09 by winning their eighth Test in a row.
Both sides retain just six of the sides that started Ireland’s 46-7 win over Italy last year, and admittedly Italy are assuredly stronger just by dint of having Sergio Parisse back in their ranks. Not alone did Ireland catch the Italians in the demoralised fallout of their home defeat to Scotland last season, and at home, but the early loss of Martin Castrogiovanni compounded the absence of their skipper and talisman.
In truth, Castrogiovanni’s presence is more symbolic, and his game time has been relatively limited with Toulon this season, whereas Parisse’s form for Stade Francais has been better than ever. Whatever about Ireland being dependant upon five or six key men, the thought of the Azzurri being without Parisse doesn’t bear thinking about. He will lead from the front, and Italy will follow.
A team reflects its coach and one of the reasons Ireland have become a winning team under Joe Schmidt is because they have also become a smart, tactically flexible team. One imagines that Keatley has in part been picked ahead of Ian Madigan due to the greater length of his kicking game and that, in tandem with Conor Murray, will kick a fair amount and the chasing and aerial strengths of the back three will be fully employed, but that they will also look to stretch Italy through the phases, which has traditionally led to a plentiful return.
It may take a while to get there, but with the help of a stronger bench which has plenty of impact potential, Ireland should get there in the end.
ITALY: Andrea Masi (Wasps); Leonardo Sarto (Zebre), Michele Campagnaro (Benetton Treviso), Luca Morisi (Benetton Treviso), Luke McLean (Sale Sharks); Kelly Haimona (Zebre), Edoardo Gori (Benetton Treviso); Matias Aguero (Zebre), Leonardo Ghiraldini (Leicester Tigers), Martin Castrogiovanni (Toulon), Josh Furno (Newcastle Falcons), George Biagi (Zebre), Alessandro Zanni (Benetton Treviso), Francesco Minto (Benetton Treviso), Sergio Parisse (Stade Francais) (capt).
Replacements: Andrea Manici (Zebre), Alberto de Marchi (Sale Sharks), Dario Chistolini (Zebre), Marco Fuser (Benetton Treviso), Marco Barbini (Benetton Treviso), Guglielmo Palazzani (Zebre), Tommaso Allan (Perpignan), Giovambattista Venditti (Zebre).
IRELAND: Rob Kearney (UCD/Leinster); Tommy Bowe (Belfast Harlequins/Ulster), Jared Payne (Ulster), Robbie Henshaw (Buccaneers/Connacht), Simon Zebo (Cork Con/Munster); Ian Keatley (Young Munster/Munster), Conor Murray (Garryowen/Munster); Jack McGrath (St. Mary’s College/Leinster), Rory Best (Banbridge/Ulster), Mike Ross (Clontarf/Leinster), Devin Toner (Lansdowne/Leinster), Paul O’Connell (Young Munster/Munster) (capt), Peter O’Mahony (Cork Constitution/Munster), Sean O’Brien (UCD/Leinster), Jordi Murphy (Lansdowne/Leinster).
Replacements: Seán Cronin (St. Mary’s College/Leinster), James Cronin (Dolphin/Munster), Martin Moore (Lansdowne/Leinster), Iain Henderson (Ballynahinch/Ulster), Tommy O’Donnell (UL Bohemians/Munster), Isaac Boss (Terenure/Leinster), Ian Madigan (Blackrock/Leinster), Felix Jones (Shannon/Munster).
Referee: Pascal Gauzère (France) Betting (Paddy Powers): 4/1 Italy, 25/1 Draw, 1/5 Ireland. Handicap odds (Italy + 10pts) Evens Italy, 20/1 Draw, Evens Ireland. Forecast: Ireland to win.