Six Nations Italy v Ireland Preview
There is no escaping the chilling reality for Italy, who are red-hot favourites to fall to their 20th successive Six Nations defeat this weekend.
The heady progress of Benetton in this season’s Guinness Pro14 has yet to translate to the national side, who often prove awkward opponents without really threatening to win the match. The bookies rate them 16-1 shots to end their losing run on Sunday.
If England are their nemesis, Ireland are close behind, having racked up 34 tries in their four previous meetings. Nor will Italy’s mood have improved with the loss of totemic captain Sergio Parisse, out with concussion suffered in a club game for Stade Français.
The No 8 has not only amassed more Six Nations appearances (67) than any other player but, as pointed out by statistician Stuart Farmer, has missed a mere 59 minutes of action within those games. Among his litany of records is the fact that he alone has carried the ball for a combined distance of more than 3km in the championship.
So no Parisse but hope remains, as David Sisi told Rugby World. “There’s definitely optimism. Everyone’s going in one direction, which is the first thing,” says the Italy lock, on the bench this weekend after two tireless performances.
“There’s a huge desire to change the losing run. We represent Italy the country and represent rugby in this country and that responsibility outweighs any (questions of) morale. The work behind the scenes is going in to change things around and for us now the next step is, crunch time, getting those results we need.”
Rocked by England in round one, Ireland recovered their poise in Edinburgh and will expect to record a comfortable bonus-point victory. With only four points from their first two matches, their title aspirations are all but dead but there is momentum to be built and places to be earned as we tick inexorably towards the World Cup in Japan.
What’s the big team news?
Italy make five changes to the side beaten last time out by Wales. Tito Tebaldi, who pulled out of the side to play Scotland in round one after an injury in the warm-up, is fit to return.
Maxime Mbanda and Jimmy Tuivaiti – who made his Test debut against Ireland in November – come into a back row lacking concussed leader Sergio Parisse.
Lock Federico Ruzza and loosehead Andrea Lovotti also refresh the forward pack.
Meanwhile, Joe Schmidt has taken a leaf out of Warren Gatland’s book by mixing up his selection against the championship’s weakest team.
Up front, hooker and captain Rory Best gets a rest having played in 61 of Ireland’s 62 Six Nations games since the start of 2007. That means a first championship start for understudy Sean Cronin after 32 appearances off the bench!
Loosehead Dave Kilcoyne also makes a first Six Nations start having made his tournament debut in 2013.
Peter O’Mahony takes the captain’s armband while an inexperienced second row unites Connacht team-mates Ultan Dillane and Quinn Roux, 22 caps between them. Ulster’s Jordi Murphy replaces Jack Conan at No 8, with Rhys Ruddock – captain when Ireland beat Italy last autumn – not considered because of a hamstring injury.
In the back-line, a hamstring injury also rules Garry Ringrose out of contention, but Chris Farrell has recovered from a knee injury to line up with Bundee Aki.
Johnny Sexton, who came off injured early in Ireland’s win at Murrayfield, has trained all week and is fit to start. With injury accounting for his regular deputy Joey Carbery, Connacht fly-half Jack Carty is in line for a Test debut off the bench.
What have the coaches said?
Italy head coach Conor O’Shea said (to Newstalk): “When you see progression you have hope. And you make other changes to our system as time goes on, we’ll get to where we need to.
“I thought the reaction to the England loss (for Ireland) was nothing short of laughable. There isn’t a divine right to win any game against top teams. To say they were beaten out of sight when it’s actually a game decided on fine margins… well, that’s the world we live in.
“Ireland have been very lucky as a country to have Joe Schmidt. I don’t know what he’ll do afterwards but I’ll certainly be picking his brains for hopefully many years to come.
“It mightn’t be as easy to meet him straight after the game this time, unless he wants to come to Rome for a coffee.”
* The sides have already met this season, Ireland winning 54-7 in Chicago last November. Jordan Larmour scored three of Ireland’s eight tries
* Ireland have won all bar one of the teams’ 19 Six Nations meetings to date, the exception being the 22-15 defeat in Rome six years ago when Brian O’Driscoll (stamping), Conor Murray (trip) and Donnacha Ryan (late tackle) were all sin-binned
* Ireland have scored more than 50 points against Italy in each of their past four meetings. Their smallest winning margin in that time is 37 points
* Exactly a quarter of Keith Earls’s 28 Test tries have come against Italy. One more will see him equal the record of eight by an Irishman against a single opponent, shared by Denis Hickie (v Italy) and Brian O’Driscoll (v France)
* By sitting out the game, Rory Best misses the chance to climb to third in the all-time list of oldest Ireland players. Best, 36 years 193 days on Sunday, will leapfrog Mike Ross on his next appearance but with Mike Gibson and John Hayes still ahead of him in the list
* Three of the Italy squad on Sunday know what it’s like to beat Ireland. Forwards Leonardo Ghiraldini, Simone Ferrari and (replacement) Alessandro Zanni were involved in the famous win of 2013
* Italy have the most penalised scrum (four penalties, three free-kicks) in this year’s tournament, but the best lineout (95.8%). Braam Steyn, with ten lineout wins and two steals, topped the individual lineout stats going into round three
What time does it kick off and is it on TV?
The match at Stadio Olimpico kicks off at 3pm UK time on Sunday and is live on ITV. There will also be live commentary on BBC Radio 5 Live Sports Extra and online, plus TV highlights on BBC2 on Sunday at 6pm.
The referee is New Zealand’s Glen Jackson, assisted by England’s Wayne Barnes and Karl Dickson. Jackson and Dickson both made the step from Premiership playing careers, with Saracens and Harlequins respectively. The TMO is another Englishman, Graham Hughes.
What are the line-ups?
Italy: Jayden Hayward; Edoardo Padovini, Michele Campagnaro, Luca Morisi, Angelo Esposito; Tommaso Allan, Tito Tebaldi; Andrea Lovotti, Leonardo Ghiraldini (capt), Simone Ferrari, Federico Ruzza, Dean Budd, Jimmy Tuivaiti, Maxime Mbanda, Braam Steyn.
Replacements: Luca Biga, Cherif Traore, Tiziano Pasquali, David Sisi, Alessandro Zanni, Guglielmo Palazzani, Ian McKinley, Tommaso Castello.
Ireland: Rob Kearney; Keith Earls, Chris Farrell, Bundee Aki, Jacob Stockdale; Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray; Dave Kilcoyne, Sean Cronin, Tadhg Furlong, Ultan Dillane, Quinn Roux, Peter O’Mahony (capt), Sean O’Brien, Jordi Murphy.
Replacements: 16 Niall Scannell, 17 Jack McGrath, 18 John Ryan, 19 Iain Henderson, 20 Josh van der Flier, 21 John Cooney, 22 Jack Carty, 23 Andrew Conway.