Without trying to come across as disrespectful to the Italians, their arrival in Dublin for this weekend’s Six Nations fixture has been tempered by the imminent departure of Brian O’Driscoll.
Unless you have been on a self-imposed media blackout for the past six months you will be aware that this Saturday’s fixture will be last time that Ireland’s most capped player ever trots out onto the home turf in a green jersey. In many people’s mind the actual outcome is an afterthought. Most expect Ireland to win, and win comfortably, so to most supporters it is all about the manner of the performance and particularly that of the man wearing number 13. O’Driscoll will also become the most capped international rugby player in history on Saturday, a fitting way to mark his last appearance on home soil, in front of his most adoring fans.
While most of the day will be spent reminiscing about the greatness of BOD, there is still an important eighty-minute task to address on the field. Ireland will be eager to get back to winning ways after defeat in Twickenham and reaffirm their position as table toppers, with an increased scoring difference.
Joe Schmidt was never going to make wholesale changes in reaction to the English defeat but the sole injury enforced alteration he has made to the team is nonetheless surprising. Iain Henderson comes in at blindside flanker as Peter O’Mahony is given an extra few days recovery time ahead of the Paris showdown. Henderson replaced O’Mahony towards the end of the Twickenham clash and will be looking to make a big impact in his favoured position. It will be no cakewalk for the young Ulsterman as the Italians are notoriously physical upfront, even without their inspirational leader in Sergio Parisse who misses out through injury.
Henderson’s elevation from the bench means there is a spot to fill; it goes to Leinster flanker Rhys Ruddock. With no specialist second row amongst the replacements Schmidt will hope nothing befalls the men in his engine room. Henderson’s versatility allows him to cover the lock position adequately but Donnacha Ryan will be kicking his heels in frustration having been overlooked for a chance to begin his reintroduction to the international scene.
Schmidt’s other alteration on the bench sees Eoin Reddan favoured over Isaac Boss as back up to Conor Murray. The Kiwi coach has also remained faithful to Fergus McFadden, as he retains his place on the bench despite the calls for Simon Zebo’s inclusion now reaching fever pitch, and Tommy Bowe’s impressive try scoring return to action with Ulster last weekend. Despite all the furore surrounding Jonny Sexton’s thumb injury, and the heavy workload he has been under due to his Racing Metro commitments, management have opted against resting him this weekend.
Looking at the opposition, Italy, they had a good campaign last season, claiming the scalps of both France and Ireland in Rome. Yet, just as it looked like they were set to be a genuine player in the Six Nations they have taken a step backwards once more. They looked impressive against Wales in Round One but the Welsh were clearly below par and even at that were easing off the gas before the finish. They threatened France in Round Two, going in neck and neck at half time before being undone by some all too fleeting French flair in the second period. The Round Three last second surrender at home to the beleaguered Scots was a real kick in the teeth.
Italy have a reputation of presenting a tough challenge for the opening hour or so to any team, before running out of steam and eventually being overrun in the fitness stakes. The exposure of their players to top flight rugby at club level had improved this fall off late in games, but it appears this issue has resurfaced again in this campaign, with Italy looking flat towards the end. The team still relies heavily on their experienced forwards, most of whom have tremendous miles on the clock.
Marco Bortolami will captain the team in Parisse’s absence. He comes into the second row, which sees the impressive Joshua Furno move into the backrow. Indeed it will be an all new backrow that takes the field at the Aviva for Italy as Jacques Brunnel has made a sweeping six changes to his starting line-up. Having looked towards 20-year-old Tommaso Allan as the potential answer to Italy’s long standing troubles at 10, Brunnel has jettisoned the Perpignan pivot in favour of the more experienced, yet no more convincing Luciano Orquera. Allan has been hit-and-miss in during his three outings so far, his poor goal kicking has been a real concern, but chopping and changing will not help the young man’s confidence.
Outside him is the gem of this Italy team, and it comes in the form of Michele Campagnaro. The outside centre will be the next opponent on Brian O’Driscoll farewell tour. Campagnaro is only 20 and this is his debut Six Nations season but has shown enough to suggest he could be a real player for Italy to hang their hat on. Renowned for the forwards they have produced down the years the list of truly world class Italian backs is limited to say the least, but the young Treviso centre has to potential to make it to that level. How he fares against O’Driscoll, who has achieved just about everything in the game, will create a fascinating subplot.
Let’s not make any bones about it, Ireland will win this game. The only thing that comes into consideration is the margin of victory. Italy have failed to beat Ireland in Dublin since the dawn of the Six Nations, and prior to that since 1997. That little piece of history won’t change this weekend.
One cannot help but feel that there is a testimonial feeling in the air and one would hope that this would be reflected on the pitch. Ireland have been rather restrained in their attacking game to date, what better time throw of the shackles and entertain the fans. It’s not about crossing for a few tries solely to appease the supporters, it is also imperative in order to advance Ireland’s claims of winning the championship. Of course there is one man everyone would like to see cross the line before the 80 minutes are up.
Prediction: Ireland, comprehensively.
Pundit Arena, Ozer McMahon.
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