On paper it should be a question of “by how much” and not “if” when Ireland host a Sergio Parisse-less Italy in Dublin on Saturday.
On paper it should be a question of “by how much” and not “if” when Ireland host a Sergio Parisse-less Italy at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday.
Currently the Irish sit atop the Championship standings with a points difference of +42 – England are next in line on +21 while Wales and France bring up the rear on +6 and +1 respectively – so a big win in Dublin this week should put Joe Schmidt's side in the box seat going to Paris.
If they manage it, added weight will go on England and Wales on Sunday as they'll know a loss at Twickenham will surely end their title hopes. And in all honesty, should Ireland beat Italy and then France, few would argue they are not worthy champions – and 11/2 underdog ones at that.
We were going to delve into 2013's final round loss in Rome but this is a different Ireland team, possessing renewed confidence under Schmidt. Italy deserved their win as Luciano Orquera kicked well to add to Giovanbattista Venditti's close-range try that ended Declan Kidney's reign. But Stadio Olimpico is not Aviva Stadium and on a day when Brian O'Driscoll says his goodbye to the Dublin supporters, we see only one winner.
Ireland enter the game without arguably their best player so far in 2014, Peter O'Mahony, who is ruled out with an injury and replaced by Iain Henderson. That's the only change to the starting line-up with one other alteration coming on the bench as Eoin Reddan comes in for Isaac Boss. Let's also not forget they're in this solid position without two of their best players, Sean O'Brien and Tommy Bowe, which is some achievement.
It is Italy though who are most hurt by absences this week as joining Parisse – who is rested ahead of the England clash – on the sidelines is flank Alessandro Zanni, with Paul Derbyshire coming in at openside and the impressive Joshua Furno moving to blindside from the second-row.
Repeating their historic heroics from twelve months ago is something no one has mentioned since Thursday's team news and with Ireland's luxury of being able to leave two British and Irish Lions wings – in form ones at that – out of their 23, it shows this is a side on an upward curve.
But it will, of course, be a man soon to be moving on who'll be dominating the camera lens over the match day as O'Driscoll says farewell to his supporters, with arguably an equally talismanic figure, Paul O'Connell, best summing up the situation leading up to the centre's 140th appearance.
“He's a quiet and understated guy, he's a bit embarrassed and he just wants to focus on finishing as well as he can, without any distractions.”
O'Connell added on the prospect of not playing alongside O'Driscoll following next weekend: “It's hard to think what life will be like without him, but at the moment there's been very little mention of it from staff, players or Brian himself, and I'm sure that's the way he'd like it.”
We're sure after the game the emotion and magnitude of the day will make for special memories for him and the whole Irish squad, ones they will hope coincide with a healthy win.
Ones to watch:
For Ireland: Building a score will be the mindset of Ireland on Saturday. If they get out in front via the boot of fly-half Jonathan Sexton, they will then look to cut loose. Sexton was this week passed fit after concern over a thumb injury so Italy may look to test him out in defence early on. If he comes through unscathed and plays his best game, Ireland should have few problems amassing points on Saturday.
For Italy: There are shoes to fill and then there are shoes to fill. Robert Barbieri is asked to step in for Sergio Parisse at number eight in what is a completely different back-row trio to the one that ran out to take on Scotland. In fact, from numbers 6 to 10 there have been changes as Joshua Furno, Paul Derbyshire, Tobias Botes and Luciano Orquera start. Can Orquera be the scourge of Ireland again?
Head-to-head: Italy's stand-out player this Six Nations Championship meets possibly one of the greatest in the tournament's history on Saturday as Michele Campagnaro goes toe-to-toe with Brian O'Driscoll. O'Driscoll becomes the most capped Test player in history this weekend, earning his 140th appearance (132 for Ireland and eight for the British and Irish Lions) so it promises to be a special occasion. Campagnaro will relish the challenge on an emotional day for O'Driscoll.
2013: Italy won 22-15, Rome
2012: Ireland won 42-10, Dublin
2011: Ireland won 36-6, Dunedin
2011: Ireland won 13-11, Rome
2010: Ireland won 29-11, Dublin
2009: Ireland won 38-9, Rome
2008: Ireland won 16-11, Dublin
2007: Ireland won 23-20, Belfast
2007: Ireland won 51-24, Rome
2006: Ireland won 26-16, Dublin
2005: Ireland won 28-17, Rome
2004: Ireland won 19-3, Dublin
Prediction: No surprises here as Ireland cruise to a win by 20!
Ireland: 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Andrew Trimble, 13 Brian O'Driscoll, 12 Gordon D'Arcy, 11 Dave Kearney, 10 Jonathan Sexton, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Jamie Heaslip, 7 Chris Henry, 6 Iain Henderson, 5 Paul O'Connell (c), 4 Devin Toner, 3 Mike Ross, 2 Rory Best, 1 Cian Healy.
Replacements: 16 Sean Cronin, 17 Jack McGrath, 18 Martin Moore, 19 Rhys Ruddock, 20 Jordi Murphy, 21 Eoin Reddan, 22 Paddy Jackson, 23 Fergus McFadden.
Italy: 15 Luke McLean, 14 Angelo Esposito, 13 Michele Campagnaro, 12 Gonzalo Garcia, 11 Leonardo Sarto, 10 Luciano Orquera, 9 Tito Tebaldi, 8 Robert Barbieri, 7 Paul Derbyshire, 6 Joshua Furno, 5 Marco Bortolami (c), 4 Quentin Geldenhuys, 3 Martin Castrogiovanni, 2 Leonardo Ghiraldini, 1 Alberto de Marchi.
Replacements: 16 David Giazzon, 17 Michele Rizzo, 18 Lorenzo Cittadini, 19 Antonio Pavanello, 20 Manoa Vosawai, 21 Edoardo Gori, 22 Tommaso Allan, 23 Andrea Masi.
Date: Saturday, March 8
Kick-off: 14:30 GMT
Venue: Aviva Stadium, Dublin
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
Assistant referees: Pascal GauzÃ¨re (France), Greg Garner (England)
Television match official: Geoff Warren (England)
Assessor: Andrew Cole (Australia)