Ireland travel to Rome on Saturday for a Six Nations clash that will also act as a warm-up for their World Cup showdown in October.
Ireland travel to the Stadio Flaminio on Saturday for a Six Nations clash that will also act as a warm-up for their World Cup showdown in October.
For those eager to clear their schedule even now; Sunday, the 2nd is the day they meet for a game that could decide who follows Australia out of the Pool. But that is way into the future and by no means will this weekend be a sparring session before the big fight in New Zealand. Italy and Ireland mean business for different reasons.
General consensus then: Rome is a banana skin that should be comfortably avoided seeing as the Emerald Isle has never fallen to the Azzurri. However, you never know with Ireland and with a partisan crowd behind Italy there is always potential that something special can happen.
Add to that underdog backing the return of Sergio Parrise this Championship, who they missed throughout their Wooden Spoon effort of 2010, and it seems like a good chance for Italy to catch Ireland napping. His comeback would boost any nation and we expect him to shine from the off.
Let's just get one thing straight before the mailbox floods with wounded Irish followers, we are not backing Nick Mallett's charges to claim a huge upset. Form is not with them at all – Italy have won just two of their last 15 in the Six Nations and the last win was a 16-12 one over Scotland last February.
They do however go into this one with a win behind them after beating Fiji. Papering over the cracks? Maybe. The same issues remain for Mallett as Mirco Bergamasco's boot was the supplier of their 24 points while their extended hunt for a half-back combination goes on. See here for an in-depth look at Italy's problem at scrum-half… and fly-half.
Ireland should be top of the standings when they head home. They will also be happy that they face France and England on home soil, with the latter a possible Grand Slammer.
Onto the teams. Kidney's selection is one slightly injury-enforced due to being depleted at full-back. Luke Fitzgerald is called in and is one of eight from Leinster. Six more come from Munster while there is just one from Ulster. Many fans feel the net needs to be widened.
Yes he will be encouraged a great deal by the strong form of new Heineken Cup favourites, Leinster, with Jonathan Sexton developing game by game to another level that moves him a good arm's length away from nearest rival for the playmaking jersey, Ronan O'Gara. Another who deserves his start is Sean O'Brien, after some special showings on the flank and more recently at number eight in Jamie Heaslip's absence has seen him become a hot property.
One area that should also not be overlooked is prop where Mike Ross – would he have been picked if still at Harlequins? – is charged with getting them a solid platform. It won't be easy against such a nuggety Italian trio so expect Tom Court to emerge from the bench later on.
The hard yards will be crucial, as ever, at the Stadio Flaminio and there is no doubt that Ireland will expect the treatment. But if they can weather the storm then a repeat of the second-half of 2009 could be in the offing. Then it will be all about preparing for France.
Ones to watch:
For Italy: Leonardo Ghiraldini will be looking to gain the upper hand on Rory Best to upset the Ulsterman. He definitely has the capability of doing just that too as Best has been struggling with form with many in Ireland thinking that Sean Cronin deserved a run.
For Ireland: Joe Schmidt should no longer be concerned when Gordon D'Arcy or Brian O'Driscoll are in need of a rest. Young and busy Leinster back Fergus McFadden has been impressive in blue and rightly earns a start, albeit in an unfamiliar position of wing. He has played there before and I wouldn't bet against him crossing on Saturday.
Head-to-head: The battle at the base should be an interesting one as Stade Francais' Sergio Parrise and Leinster's Sean O'Brien meet at the Stadio Flaminio. The latter has arguably been the stand-out number eight of the Heineken Cup thus far and will enjoy his day against the former IRB World Player of the Year nominee. Expect surges from both.
2010: Ireland won 29-11 at Croke Park
2009: Ireland won 38-9 at Stadio Flaminio
2008: Ireland won 16-11 at Croke Park
2007: Ireland won 23-20 at Ravenhill
2007: Ireland won 51-24 at Stadio Flaminio
2006: Ireland won 26-16 at Lansdowne Road
2005: Ireland won 28-17 at Stadio Flaminio
2004: Ireland won 19-3 at Lansdowne Road
2003: Ireland won 61-6 at Thomond Park
2003: Ireland won 37-13 at Stadio Flaminio
Prediction: Expect it to be tight until half-time before the visitors' superior back-line clicks into gear. Ireland by about 14!
Italy: 15 Luke McLean, 14 Andrea Masi, 13 Gonzalo Canale, 12 Alberto Sgarbi, 11 Mirco Bergamasco, 10 Kris Burton, 9 Edoardo Gori, 8 Sergio Parisse (capt), 7 Alessandro Zanni, 6 Josh Sole, 5 Quintin Geldenhuys, 4 Santiago Dellape, 3 Martin Castrogiovanni, 2 Leonardo Ghiraldini, 1 Salvatore Perugini.
Replacements: 16 Fabio Ongaro, 17 Andrea Lo Cicero, 18 Carlo Del Fava, 19 Valerio Bernabo, 20 Pablo Canavosio, 21 Luciano Orquera, 22 Gonzalo Garcia.
Ireland: 15 Luke Fitzgerald, 14 Fergus McFadden, 13 Brian O'Driscoll (capt), 12 Gordon D'Arcy, 11 Keith Earls, 10 Jonathan Sexton, 9 Tomas O'Leary, 8 Sean O'Brien, 7 David Wallace, 6 Denis Leamy, 5 Paul O'Connell, 4 Donncha O'Callaghan, 3 Mike Ross, 2 Rory Best, 1 Cian Healy.
Replacements: 16 Sean Cronin, 17 Tom Court, 18 Leo Cullen, 19 Shane Jennings, 20 Eoin Reddan, 21 Ronan O'Gara, 22 Paddy Wallace.
Date: Saturday, February 5
Kick-off: 15:30 (14:30 GMT)
Venue: Stadio Flaminio
Referee: Romain Poite (France)
Assistant referees: JÃ©rÃ´me Garces (France), David Changleng (Scotland)
Television match official: Geoff Warren (England)
By Adam Kyriacou