RBS 6 Nations Preview: Italy v Ireland

RBS 6 Nations
Date: 5th February 2011
Kick-off: 14:30 (GMT)
Venue: Stadio Flaminio

Sergio Parisse returns to 6 Nations action leading his side out in the Stadio Flaminio this Saturday. Italy have shown a marked improvement since they joined the in 2000 and I believe that the next two season will see the greatest leap in performance, now that Italian teams are competing week-in, week-out, in the Magners League and Heineken Cup. Already this season Aironi have beaten last season’s Heineken Cup finalists Biarritz, and Treviso have an impressive home record. The confidence the players will gain from such performances will start to show at club and national level.

The return of inspirational captain Paul O’Connell will give the Irish a huge boost coming into this game. The Irish team have been decimated with injuries, but this may well turn out to be a blessing in disguise giving players like Fergus McFadden, Sean O’Brien and Mike Ross an opportunity to squeeze their way into the first team. With so many forced changes in the side, Declan Kidney has not experimented too much in other positions and reverts to the experienced pairings of O’Connell and O’Callaghan in the second row and Wallace and Leamy to partner O’Brien in the backrow.

What to expect:
Both Ireland and Italy are notorious slow-starters, so don’t expect the first 20 minutes to be fast and furious! Expect the scrums and inevitable resets to play a big part in this game, and Ireland will need to have patience and keep their discipline. If Nick Mallet has been watching any rugby this season he will know that Ireland’s fullback Luke Fitzgerald has not been on-form since returning from injury and he could be in for a torrent of high balls raining down on him this Saturday. The atmosphere in Rome is always electric, the weather will be sunny and 15 degrees so that will suit Ireland’s style in getting the ball wide fast.

All eyes on:
Making only his 3rd senior cap, Mike Ross, the 31-year-old Corkman lines out against Italy this Saturday in what will be the biggest test of his scrummaging ability of his career. Ireland have suffered massively in the scrum of late and there have been some pretty strong calls for Ross’ inclusion in the senior setup – he has been in excellent form playing for Leinster this season.

Italian out-half Kristopher Burton will come under close scrutiny in this game: the young Aussie will earn his 5th cap on Saturday after putting some impressive performances in this season at club level with Treviso. Italy have lost their first-choice out-half Craig Gower to a knee injury and Burton will be keen to make his mark on the Azzuri squad to asure himself of a place in the Italian World cup side. Edoardo Gori will partner Burton at half-back and this inexperienced pairing will surely be a target for the very experienced Irish backrow.

Head to head: Sergio Parisse v Sean O’Brien
The battle of the number 8’s sees 2008 World Player of the year nominee, Parisse, face off against Leinster dynamo Sean O’Brien. Parisse is returning to 6 Nations action after missing last year’s tournament with a knee injury, but will be keen to put his stamp on the game. Parisse dislocated a finger during Stade Francais’ defeat to Castres last week, but has been confirmed to start on Saturday. O’Brien has been in scintillating form for Leinster this season, always popping up in the right place at the right time and his performances in the Heineken Cup have seen the Carlow man pick up 2 Man of the Match awards already this season.

Last year’s result: Ireland 29-11 Italy, Dublin

Italy will try and kill the fast ball that Ireland will want to generate, and the pressure on the scrum will be immense. Ireland’s forced changes will all be trying to stake a claim for 1st team places and this should inject a sense of urgency to the game. With the weather being dry and clear Ireland will have the advantage, and in the end they will have too much for Italy and should emerge winners. Ireland by 18.