Six Nations Ireland v Italy Preview
Last week there was no more inspiring sight than Johnny Sexton unlatching his boot and sending over an almighty, long-range drop-goal. However, you must acknowledge that France missed a kick of their own to take the game, while Ireland could not score any tries on their way to the 15-13 win (France did, through Teddy Thomas).
Italy, on the other hand, may have conceded seven scores to England, but looked like they have added a splash of fluidity to their attack. Twice they dotted down in the 15-46 loss to England, with Tommaso Benvenuti and Mattia Bellini darting through.
This match represents Ireland’s chance to open up and entertain while Italy must now bite down and show some quality away from home. Remember Italy have only 11 wins in the history of the Six Nations, only winning away from home twice – both of those were against Scotland, though they did draw against Wales in 2006.
Here is where the match could be decided on Saturday.
The key battle areas
Italy may have to prepare for many different kinds of chasing to survive at the Aviva. Ireland have selected a back-row with Dan Leavy and Jack Conan in it, Leinster players capable of hitting lines or simply opening up the legs. And with the players Ireland have in their back-three plus Robbie Henshaw there are men all over the park who can compete for kicks. With Sexton’s boot and the box-kicking brilliance of Conor Murray launching the ball, there could be a lot of fielding involved.
Former Ireland full-back Conor O’Shea and his assistant coach Mike Catt should have the Italians well prepared for kick returns – and O’Shea will want no stone unturned with this being the first time he takes a Test side to face Ireland in Dublin, where he won 18 of his 35 caps (but where, interestingly, he had a 50% win record against the Italians). But there is more too a game than that.
So much could be dependent on the performance of the set-piece. Italy’s front-row is now made up of the inexperienced trio of Nicola Quaglio, Luca Bigi and Simone Ferrari – who have just 19 caps between them – face the formidable triumvirate of Jack McGrath, Rory Best and Tadgh Furlong. Italy have Leonardo Ghiraldini on the bench, who has certainly scrapped his way around the block, but then Ireland have Sean Cronin and Cian Healy on theirs, two wily and hungry players, happy to be back at the sharp end with Ireland.
James Ryan was impressive in the Irish boiler-house last week but drops out of the squad altogether due to a knock, leaving the door open for lineout specialist Devin Toner to return, freeing up Iain Henderson from any responsibility there so he can focus on smacking opposition.
Which will be needed. Last week Tommaso Boni was hyperactive in attack, with the centre proving difficult to shepherd into a typical running line or bring down straight away. With Tommaso Allan playing close to the gain-line and looking happy to pass flat, over or under players, and with Tommaso Castello always chuffed to run a direct line and tie up tacklers, there should be plenty of moving targets.
Italy have also reintroduced Braam Steyn – a columnist in the current issue of Rugby World magazine. Steyn is plays like a herd of bulls in a house made of china. He will certainly be on the referee’s mind for much of the game, but his work-rate and selflessness in physical confrontations may free up skipper Sergio Parisse to play a little looser.
Of course the benches of both teams will have an influence and again the idea of chasing comes back in again. Because while Italy may be more confident in attack, when a freshly introduced Cronin drags defenders into wide channels and then CJ Stander comes on and takes a few men to drag him down, everyone in the stadium could be up on their feet to see substitute and debutant Jordan Larmour get the ball in his hands with gaps opening up.
What time does Ireland v Italy kick off?
Saturday 10 February, 2.15pm, Aviva Stadium
Ireland: Rob Kearney; Keith Earls, Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki, Jacob Stockdale; Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray; Jack McGrath, Rory Best (captain), Tadhg Furlong, Iain Henderson, Devin Toner, Peter O’Mahony, Dan Leavy, Jack Conan.
Replacements: Sean Cronin, Cian Healy, Andrew Porter, Quinn Roux, CJ Stander, Kieran Marmion, Joey Carbery, Jordan Larmour.
Italy: Matteo Minozzi, Tommaso Benvenuti, Tommaso Boni, Tommaso Castello, Mattia Bellini, Tommaso Allan, Marcello Violi, Nicola Quaglio, Luca Bigi, Simone Ferrari, Alessandro Zanni, Dean Budd, Seb Negri, Braam Steyn, Sergio Parisse (captain).
Replacements: Leonardo Ghiraldini, Andrea Lovotti, Tiziano Pasquali, Federico Ruzza, Maxime Mbanda, Edoardo Gori, Carlo Canna. Jayden Hayward.
Romain Poite will be in charge. Pascal Gauzere (France) and Matthew Carley (England) will be the assistant referees while David Grashoff (England) will be the TMO. Poite was the man in the middle last year when Ireland lost to Scotland.
The TV Details
The game will be shown live on ITV. Click the link for all the TV details for the rest of the tournament.