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Ireland bid to get their Six Nations show on the road with big win in Rome

Andy Farrell’s men take on a youthful but defensively porous Italian outfit at Stadio Olimpico.

Ireland number eight CJ Stander at Stadio Olimpico yesterday.
Ireland number eight CJ Stander at Stadio Olimpico yesterday.
Image: IRFU/Ryan Bailey/INPHO

ITALY OUT-HALF PAOLO Garbisi was a nine-year-old boy growing up in the little town of Martellago, just outside Venice, when Johnny Sexton made his Test debut for Ireland against Fiji in November 2009.

Over 11 years on, the pair will line up opposite each other for Italy and Ireland today in their Six Nations clash at a fan-less Stadio Olimpico in Rome [KO 2.15pm Irish time, Virgin Media/ITV].

While 35-year-old Sexton is answering ever more frequent questions about how long he intends to play on for, 20-year-old Garbisi could have four World Cups ahead of him if he manages to steer clear of major injuries.

19-year-old Italy scrum-half Stephen Varney is in the same boat, as are the talented 20-year-old fullback Jacopo Trulla, replacement hooker Gianmarco Lucchesi, and powerful sub centre Federico Mori.

There are a couple of 22-year-olds in this Italian squad too in the shape of starting number eight Michel Lamaro and sub lock Niccolò Cannone, so it’s clear that head coach Franco Smith is building for the future.

While everyone likes to see a bit of youth involved – Ireland have their own in the likes of 23-year-old starting hooker Ronan Kelleher and 21-year-old pair Craig Casey and Ryan Baird, both possible debutants off the bench – none of the aforementioned will end their careers with anything close to the list of honours Sexton has amassed.

Not that the veteran out-half is finished yet. He returns from a head injury today convinced that he is part of an Ireland set-up moving in the right direction. Sexton knows he might not be around for the 2023 World Cup, but he believes that Andy Farrell’s squad are learning and improving. 

paolo-garbisi 20-year-old Italy out-half Paolo Garbisi. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

In the short-term, this game is about Ireland turning their 2021 Six Nations around after two defeats in the opening two rounds. A red card for Peter O’Mahony made life very difficult against Wales but Ireland were poor, albeit very hard-working, against France.

This trip to Rome is about Farrell’s side resetting themselves, clicking into the attacking flow they have been chasing, building confidence, and gathering momentum ahead of tougher tests against Scotland and England. While supporters worry about a fifth-place finish, this Ireland squad believe that they can end the championship strongly.

A refreshed matchday 23 showing seven changes in the starting XV may help Ireland’s quest to turn a corner, with Jordan Larmour set to add attacking vitality to an all-Leinster backline that should ensure cohesion. James Lowe would love some real attacking chances, while centres Garry Ringrose and Robbie Henshaw are determined to be stronger decision-makers and communicators in midfield.

Alongside Sexton, scrum-half Jamison Gibson-Park must take advantage of Conor Murray’s injury-enforced absence to show his creativity. 

There should be energy up front too as Kelleher makes his first Six Nations start, Dave Kilcoyne his ninth Test start, and Tadhg Furlong his first Ireland start since February 2020. James Ryan returns from a head injury in the second row, meaning a shift to the blindside flank for the in-form Tadhg Beirne, whose skills are suited to this task.

Will Connors is a momentum-winner at his best and today is a chance to show he has plenty of attacking skills to bring to the party too. With the relentlessly energetic scrum-half Casey and athletic lock Baird among those to be sprung from the bench, this is an Ireland 23 that should be able to fulfill their 20-points favouritism.

paul-oconnell-and-andy-farrell Paul O'Connell and Andy Farrell in Rome. Source: IRFU/Ryan Bailey/INPHO

Italy have conceded 91 points in their last two games against France and England but they have displayed some sharp attacking play and will look to stress the Irish defence.

A good start would be hugely heartening for them and Smith must have stressed to his players that Ireland, clearly not a very confident team as things stand, are vulnerable at the moment. If they are going to end their 29-game losing streak in the Six Nations, Italy must upset Farrell’s men in the opening half. 

It’s the nightmare scenario for Ireland, who didn’t have a happy time on their most recent visit to Rome in 2019 when they emerged as 26-16 winners after a poor performance. Farrell will hope to avoid similar hiccups.

The Mike Catt-coached attack needs to fire for Ireland. He and Farrell have demanded that their players make better decisions on the ball this weekend but Ireland also need to strike convincingly from set-piece, something that always fills players with confidence.

So far in this championship, Ireland have quicker ruck ball than anyone, Paul O’Connell’s lineout has earned seven steals and delivered an 89% return on the Irish throw, while John Fogarty’s scrum has been at 100%. 

Yet Ireland have made the fewest linebreaks in the championship, scored the fewest tries, made the joint-fewest offloads, kicked the most in play, and had more possession than anyone else. Everything needs to be sharper in Rome.  

This Italy game usually represents the chance for Ireland to go up a few more gears in attack, particularly with sunshine and warm weather forecast. Anything else and worries about this Ireland set-up will abound. 

Italy:

15. Jacopo Trulla
14. Luca Sperandio
13. Juan Ignacio Brex
12. Carlo Canna
11. Monty Ioane
10. Paolo Garbisi
9. Stephen Varney 

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1. Andrea Lovotti
2. Luca Bigi (captain)
3. Marco Riccioni
4. Marco Lazzaroni
5. David Sisi
6. Sebastian Negri
7. Johan Meyer
8. Michele Lamaro

Replacements:

16. Gianmarco Lucchesi
17. Cherif Traore
18. Giosue Zilocchi
19. Niccolò Cannone
20. Maxime Mbanda
21. Callum Braley
22. Federico Mori
23. Mattia Bellini

Ireland:

15. Hugo Keenan
14. Jordan Larmour
13. Garry Ringrose
12. Robbie Henshaw
11. James Lowe
10. Johnny Sexton (captain)
9. Jamison Gibson-Park

1. Dave Kilcoyne
2. Ronan Kelleher
3. Tadhg Furlong
4. Iain Henderson
5. James Ryan
6. Tadhg Beirne
7. Will Connors
8. CJ Stander

Replacements:

16. Rob Herring
17. Cian Healy
18. Andrew Porter
19. Ryan Baird
20. Jack Conan
21. Craig Casey
22. Billy Burns
23. Keith Earls 

Referee: Mathieu Raynal [FFR]
Assistant referees: Mike Adamson [SRU] and Craig Evans [WRU]
TMO: Romain Poite [FFR].

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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