Ireland will hope to draw inspiration from dominant performances from their u20 and women’s sides as they march into Rome slightly battered but confident. A spectacular autumn series has marked them as early tournament favorites, but a number of untimely injuries will make things difficult in the first couple rounds. Thankfully perennial underdogs Italy are up first, though they are inevitably a legitimate challenge at home.
With a lengthy casualty list that already includes Jonny Sexton, Chris Henry, and Rhys Ruddock among others, the latest to join the club is Jamie Heaslip, ruled out with a shoulder knock, though the good news is that he should be back in business for next week’s match against France, along with Sexton and others. Jordi Murphy is the man tasked to fill in, after Jack Conan failed to make an impression against the Saxons in Cork.
Sean O’Brien had a fair bit of rust about him in that fixture, but has been shoehorned straight into the side anyway, with Joe Schmidt hoping to get 50 or so minutes from his star carrier. Iain Henderson went a fair bit better, but settles for a spot on the bench, along with Tommy O’Donnell, certain to see a fair chunk of action as O’Brien’s backup. At tighthead Mike Ross has won a close call over fellow Leinsterman Martin Moore, and there is a first Six Nations appearance for reserve loosehead James Cronin, whose solitary cap came on the successful tour to Argentina last June.
The flyhalf conundrum has been resolved in part by Ian Keatley’s familiarity with Conor Murray, but also Ian Madigan’s average performance against the Wolfhounds. Keatley is not the playmaker that Madigan is, but has a superior tactical kicking game that should prove useful for a rainy day in Rome. It’s interesting to note that Isaac Boss has been rewarded for his impact at Musgrave Park, with Kieran Marmion forced to watch from the stands.
Jacques Brunel has opted for a largely predictable side, but there are a couple surprises. George Biagi makes only his second test start in place of injured Quintin Geldenhuys, while Marco Fuser is the preferred second row sub ahead of centurion Marco Bortolami. There is no place for any of Simone Favaro, Robert Barbieri, or Mauro Bergamasco, with the no7 jersey instead going to Francesco Minto, normally a versatile second row or blindside flanker, and uncapped Marco Barbini catapulted in from outside the squad to act as cover. Brunel must be anticipating a heavy duel up front, and is countering with a big set of forwards.
The halfbacks remain the same, with Kelly Haimona getting the nod over Tommaso Allan, and Luke McLean’s kicking game is preferred to the out-and-out power of Giovanbattista Venditti, who will stew and stir on the sidelines until he gets a chance to enter the fray. Michele Campagnaro remains the danger man in the midfield. The question is, as ever, will he see enough ball to make a difference?
Italy are certainly no slouches, especially up front, but will struggle with the tactically astute Irish side both in style and set piece accuracy. The Azzurri scrum might suffer slightly in the absence of Geldenhuys, and they just don’t have a heavy ball carrier to get them on the front foot. They’ll be committed to the tackle and will try to slow the game down, but they can’t do it forever and eventually mistakes will yield points for the visitors. Ireland don’t blow them away but win comfortably by 12.
ITALY vs IRELAND
Saturday, February 7, 14:30 GMT, Rome
Referee: Pascal Gaüzère (FFR)
Assistants: John Lacey (IRFU) & Luke Pearce (RFU)
TMO: Graham Hughes (RFU)