Either Italy or Ireland could still conceivably finish the championship with the dreaded Wooden Spoon tag should France defeat Scotland in Paris. Both sides have only one Six Nations win from their respective four fixtures, though Ireland’s draw with France leaves them above their opponents in the table.
Reasons to back Italy
Buoyed by their performance at Twickenham last weekend and their impressive opening victory over France at the beginning of February Italy should be confident of providing Ireland with their toughest visit to Rome in many years. In the past Italy could be accused of not building on their big performances, failing to back up their improvements the following week. However, you get the sense that last weekend’s near miss will galvanise the Azzurri to really push a weakened Ireland squad to the wire at a capacity Stadio Olympico. There’s no place like home – A ogni uccello il suo nido è bello.
For my money, Sergio Parisse, Italy’s outstanding capitano, is amongst a select few, one of whom will be in green wearing 13 on his back on Saturday, with a genuine claim to the theoretical accolade ‘best player in Six Nations history’. Cleared to play in the remaining fixtures after his ban was reduced from 30 days to 20 upon appeal, Parisse was a colossus against England. He certainly didn’t belong on the losing side, and his threat will obviously be a major concern for Ireland. A win this weekend could potentially see Italy finish as high as third in the table, a feat which Parisse deserves more than anyone else.
Previous Italian sides have struggled to convert periods of dominance into points, often falling just short of a winning target by virtue of failing to take opportunities presented to them, be that via the boot or a spurned chance to cross the line. Nowadays they’re a dangerous threat from almost anywhere on the field, a consequence of their developing offloading game which Jacques Brunel has encouraged. In broken play the likes of Parisse and in-from Luke Mclean, who had a terrific game versus England, have the ability to punish slack defending.
Reasons to back Ireland
The positive news from the Ireland camp that Brian O’Driscoll, Luke Marshall, Craig Gilroy and Donnacha Ryan would all be available for selection was tempered slightly by another late Sexton setback. Having been passed fit and named in Declan Kidney’s side, he went over on his foot and unfortunately tore a tendon ruling him out of the final Six Nations fixture. It’s fair to say Ireland have accumulated a substantial injury list both prior to and during these championships- Fergus McFadden and Eoin Reddan were the latest withdrawals before Sexton. That Ireland remained competitive in each of their fixtures is to the credit of those coming into the side, and should stand them in good stead for future years. But this generation are also more than good enough at this present time to get a result in Rome. In fact, they will be expected to bring home victory such is the pressure of international rugby.
These championships have hardly been a resounding success from an Irish perspective. However the squad appear to remain in good spirits. Their 13-13 draw with France at the Aviva was far from a disaster, and should give a young team the confidence to take the game to Italy. The class of 2013 may not be a vintage French side, but their undoubted quality throughout the squad and strength in depth still make them a tough nut to crack. Ireland can be particularly pleased that they continue to start games on a positive footing. This was no more evident than in the opening game against Wales as the boys in green built an unassailable lead in the first half. The same could also be said for the game at Murrayfield, though on this occasion Ireland failed to capitalise on their opportunities and paid the price for that. If they start on a positive note, and are clinical when necessary then Italy may not possess the firepower to draw Ireland back.
Paddy Jackson’s performance last weekend was much improved but the final fixture presents a new challenge, keeping his composure in a packed Stadio Olympico when the majority of the 74,000 sell-out crowd will be wishing for his capitulation. A rejuvenated Conor Murray did an excellent job of taking a huge amount of pressure from Jackson against France and will aim to do the same on Saturday. The Italian half-backs can struggle under pressure, so if the Irish pair can dictate the game, play in the right areas of the field then Ireland should have a great chance of winning.
Ireland have won 17 consecutive internationals against Italy, their last defeat coming way back in December 1997. Depleted by injuries and facing an Italy side buoyed by recent performances, this weekend’s fixture is arguably the most challenging Ireland have faced during that long run but they should have just enough to bring home a victory. Ireland by 8.