Ireland full-back Rob Kearney has praised Italy’s recent form and says they are no longer a “walkover”.
Ireland travel to the Stadio Olimpico on Saturday, with the Six Nations reaching it’s climax. A defeat for either team could see them finish bottom, thus receiving the dreaded wooden spoon.
Having beaten Wales in Cardiff, Ireland fell to losses against England and Scotland. They drew 13-13 with France last weekend and know that victory is a must on Saturday. However, Kearney believes their Italian opponents cannot be underestimated.
“Rome is a really difficult place to go.” said the Leinster back. “What’s been good this year with Italy beating France and going close against England is that it’s generated a public consensus that [Italy] aren’t a walkover.
Having defeated France in the first round of the tournament, Italy came close to beating Grand Slam-chasers England and Kearney believes it is a sign of things to come for the Azzurri.
“In the past it’s always been lose-lose. If you win you expect it and if you lose you get hammered for it. Now no one is under no illusions as to how good [Italy] are. The one difference that stands out for me this year is that they are now really comfortable with the ball.
“They will happily go through 10, 12 or 15 phases and try to keep playing rugby and look for tries. In years gone by they were probably guilty of kicking away stupid balls, trying to play the territory game a little more, taking snatched drop-goals.
“They respect the ball a huge amount more now and have realised they can punish teams with tries.”
Ireland will likely secure a third place finish if they leave Rome with the win. However, a loss would see them rely on Scotland to get a result in Paris against France in order to avoid the wooden spoon. It is not the climax many people had hoped for, but a win would be a step in the right direction as Declan Kidney’s men look to close the book on what has been an anti-climactic campaign.