GAMEDAY AT THE Aviva Stadium and not an ice particle in sight.
Ireland entertain an Italian side shorn of Martin Castrogiovanni and the Bergamasco brothers. A comfortable win will be expected. Declan Kidney will take a one-point margin of victory, but fans in attendance, and tuning in, will demand more.
The mood ahead of the country’s last fixture with Italy, at the World Cup, was apprehensive. Ireland had defeated Australia to take control of Pool C but a defeat to Nick Mallet’s side would have sent them home.
Cheered on by a green multitude at Otago Stadium, Ireland battled and battered the Italians in the first half before opening up in the second. Donnacha O’Callaghan played his finest match of the tournament, Brian O’Driscoll arrowed in for a try and Keith Earls recreated the Chris Ashton ‘swallow’ score in the corner – apologising to his father afterwards for ‘birthday dive’ extravagance on the night he turned 24.
Three matches after that 36-6 victory and O’Driscoll is sitting out the campaign, Earls has been moved from left-wing to centre and O’Callaghan is clinging on to his spot in the second-row with brittle finger-nails.
Today’s match provides the perfect opportunity for Ireland to recreate the intensity and stealth that tore Italy to shreds and moved Mallet to exclaim ‘Where is their weakness?’
In Tommy Bowe and Andrew Trimble, the team have wingers that are in top form this season and who back themselves to get over the try-line, no matter how congested the pathway. Gordon D’Arcy has enjoyed fruitful days against the Azzurri in the past and Earls’ penchant for feints and sleight of hand should trouble Tommaso Benvenuti and Alberto Sgarbi in the centre.
Jamie Heaslip had his best international game for a year during the defeat to Wales, and Stephen Ferris will be hell-bent on leaving the pitch a winner rather than a dejected soul trudging towards a dreaded patio chair masquerading as the sin-bin.
As much as he tried to set his sights on Sergio Parisse and co. midweek, questions about that contentious tip tackle on Ian Evans lingered. A strong showing from Ferris and the Irish back-row should end the reminiscence and set themselves up for a testing afternoon against France next week.
Castrogiovanni’s absence diminishes the entire Italian front-row, as witnessed in their defeat to England at the Stadio Olimpico. The Leicester prop left injured after half an hour and England won a crucial penalty at the very next scrum.
Former Perpignan coach, Jacques Brunel needs more than one Six Nations before judgement can be passed on his tenure, but he must be credited for introducing 21-year-old winger Giovanbattista Vendetti into the backs division. Along with Andrea Masi, he represents a genuine threat. There may no longer be time for opponents to gather their thoughts and spot relatives in the crowd when an Italian backline receives the ball.
Conor Murray and Ronan O’Gara ran Italy ragged at the World Cup but Jonny Sexton looks to have secured his spot at 10. Only a horrendous kicking game, or an Irish defeat, will prevent him from lining up at out-half at Stade de France.
Brunel’s half-back larder is sparse and lined with dust – Luciano Orquera has been shunted out and Kris Burton relegated to the bench. Treviso scrum-half Edoardo Gori is young and a work in progress.
South-African born Tobias Botes has been in Gori’s back-up at club level for most of the season and has now been asked to take the number 10 jersey. One can only hope that his kicking has improved from the England match, when he skewed two penalties.
Expect Italy’s record of 15 winless years in Dublin to stretch onwards, Peter O’Mahony to make his much anticipated international debut and Sergio Parisse to emerge with credit for yet another caterwauling, obstinate display in the face of a 20-point Irish margin of victory.