Despite labelling them as their toughest opponents in the upcoming Six Nations, Italy captain Sergio Parisse believes Ireland can be defeated.
The Azzurri face the reigning champions next Saturday as they look to start their campaign with a shock victory at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome.
And while Joe Schmidt’s side have already beaten Australia and South Africa in the past two months, captain Parisse remains confident they can prevail.
“Ireland are probably the best team in the northern hemisphere – it is a chance for us to play them at home,” he told Press Association Sport.
“Everyone saw how Ireland played in November.
“They are a very complete team, they have good backs, good forwards, they are very dynamic especially in terms of defence.
“They are good at the turnover, at building mauls and getting in front of teams – they are a difficult team to play against.
“I know they have some injuries but they will arrive with a very competitive side.”
Italy have fond memories of the last time Ireland came to the Stadio Olimipico in 2013 when they won 22-15. However, the Irish hit back in 2014 in their title-winning campaign as they dominated the Azzurri 46-7.
“As Italians, we are not at the same level as Ireland,” Parisse revealed.
“We beat them two years ago but last year they won by 40 points in Dublin.
“It is important for us to be competitive and see if we are really, really far from them or if we are able to play a full match at our best and beat a team like Ireland.
“It is important because we are going to play them in a few months’ time at the World Cup.
“It is important for us mentally to know we can beat these teams.
“If we play 100 games against Ireland we would probably lose 98 so we have a small opportunity to beat them but we have to play every match with this ambition.
“We have to try to be competitive against every team we play at the Six Nations.”
He added: “We have shown we can be competitive and we can win like when we beat very good teams in 2013.
“But last year we played a poor Six Nations and that is the difference between a great team and a team who can get a great result, but do not have the same consistency.
“That is the target this year – to have more consistency, especially in the three matches we play at home.”