By Bea Asprey, Rugby World Writer
WHO could forget Ireland’s near-horror story from the 2011 RBS 6 Nations? On a sunny afternoon at the Stadio Flaminio on the opening weekend of the tournament, a Luke McLean try gave Italy an 11-10 lead with minutes left of the match to play, and Ireland were staring down the barrel of defeat. Then hundreds of green-shirted fans thanked God for Ronan O’Gara, whose last gasp drop-goal saved the day in a move seen so many times before.
The teams have since played at the World Cup, when Ireland thumped Italy 36-6 in Dunedin on the back of handsome wins against Australia and Russia, but the happenings of this time last year will still be fresh in the minds of both teams. However, Ireland are favourites to come out on top at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday.
Backs against the wall
We’ve seen Ronan O’Gara pull out the drop-goal for both Munster and Ireland, and Leinster claw their way back from a 16-point deficit to win the Heineken Cup, and it’s arguable that the Irish are at their best when their backs are up against the wall. The fact that they have the ability to win games at the death is one that Italy are only too aware of, and they can also pull out top performances when required. England went to Dublin hoping to win their first Grand Slam in eight years last season, only to be sent packing by their hosts. Having lost two games in a row to close rivals Wales, Ireland know that a win on Saturday is crucial to get their Six Nations campaign back on track.
Home or away?
While the Azurri have clocked up some notable wins in Rome, none more so than last year’s 22-21 victory over France, their away form leaves a lot to be desired. They managed a draw against Wales in Cardiff in 2006, and won at Murrayfield in 2007, but those two are the only Six Nations games in which they have been successful on the road, and it will be a lot tougher to front up in the face of a passionate Aviva Stadium crowd.
Leaders of the pack
Italian rock Martin Castrogiovanni has been ruled out of the remainder of the tournament with a rib injury, leaving hard boots for coach Jacques Brunel to fill. He is replaced by Lorenzo Cittadini at tighthead, while Six Nations debutant Michele Rizzo fills the loosehead berth, and although it’s hard to imagine an Italian team who aren’t brutally physical up front, Mike Ross and Cian Healy should have no trouble taming this pack.
Flair of Ireland’s backs
While creativity is an area where Italy’s backs are often found lacking, the same cannot be said for Ireland’s backline. Four of the seven were Lions tourists in 2009, and they have prolific try-scorers in their ranks. Italy failed to score a try against France on the opening weekend of this tournament, and their two against England were born out of the opposition’s mistakes. In contrast, Ireland scored two tries on their way to defeat at the hands of the Welsh, current tournament favourites.
IRELAND v ITALY, AVIVA STADIUM, SATURDAY 25 FEBRUARY, Kick-off 1.30pm, Live on BBC1
Ireland: Rob Kearney; Tommy Bowe, Keith Earls, Gordon D’Arcy, Andrew Trimble; Jonathan Sexton, Conor Murray; Cian Healy, Rory Best, Mike Ross, Donncha O’Callaghan, Paul O’Connell (capt), Stephen Ferris, Sean O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip.
Replacements: Sean Cronin, Tom Court, Donncha Ryan, Peter O’Mahony, Eoin Reddan, Ronan O’Gara Fergus McFadden.
Italy: Andrea Masi; Giovanbattista Venditti, Tomasso Benvenuti, Alberto Sgarbi, Luke McLean; Tobias Botes, Edoardo Gori; Michele Rizzo, Leonardo Ghiraldini, Lorenzo Cittadini, Quintin Geldenhuys, Marco Bortolami, Alessandro Zanni, Robert Barbieri, Sergio Parisse (capt).
Replacements: Tommaso D’Apice, Fabio Staibano, Antonio Pavanello, Simone Favaro, Fabio Semenzato, Kristopher Burton, Gonzalo Javier Canale.
Referee: Craig Joubert