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Preview: Ireland v Italy

24th February 2012 08:56

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Ireland: Defeat is non-negotiable

Ireland will be chomping at the bit to get their Six Nations campaign back underway again against Italy in Dublin on Saturday.

The Irish have been inactive since losing to Wales on the opening weekend of the tournament and will be eager to resume with a win against the Azzurri, which will end Ireland's three-match losing streak at the Aviva Stadium.

Italy sit bottom of the Six Nations table following defeats to France and England while Ireland similarly have no points after losing to the Welsh, before their clash in Paris was postponed due to the weather. The lone positive from the French farce is that it gave Ireland's players the chance to rest aching bodies ahead of this weekend's clash with the ultra-physical Italians.

Indeed, one thing any team can rely on when they face Italy is a test of their muscle. And with the rescheduled tournament giving Ireland an unexpected four games in four weekends, Jacques Brunel's men will provide a tough start to that run of fixtures.

Italy come to Dublin knowing they've lost every Six Nations match against Ireland since entering the tournament, leaving just the Irish and England as the two scalps they've yet to claim in the competition. They came close to their first-ever victory over England two weeks ago after leading 15-6 early in the second half at a snowy Stadio Olimpico in Rome, before conceding 13 unanswered points.

Ireland's previous Six Nations encounter with Italy ended with a heart-stopping 13-11 victory at the Stadio Flaminio secured only by Ronan O'Gara's last-minute drop goal - while Ireland needed a second-half blitz to see them off at the World Cup, ending their hopes of reaching the knockout stages.

One factor which could work in Italy's favour is Ireland's poor record at the rebuilt Lansdowne Road. Since the redeveloped arena opened in 2010, Ireland have lost six of the nine internationals played there.

"We're well aware of the record and it is annoying and frustrating," said Ireland skipper Paul O'Connell.

"We've rarely put in an 80 minute performance there and that's the real problem. We're an excellent side but we haven't been that excellent side for the whole 80 minutes and that will be the goal for this weekend."

Ireland centre Gordon D'Arcy agrees with his captain, admitting their championship hopes will go up in smoke unless they drastically improve their home form. The defeat to Wales on the opening weekend of the Six Nations was the Irish's third successive defeat in Dublin.

"Regardless of who we are playing, it's a home game and we should be winning those," said D'Arcy.

"The fallout from the Wales game was maybe justified by the exit from the World Cup, the fact that it was our first game at home and the amount of games we lost at the Aviva last year."

Ireland will field the same line-up chosen for the postponed Round Two clash with France. Brunel, by contrast, has made four changes to his side that squandered a nine-point lead in their 19-15 loss to England.

South African-born Tobias Botes will make his first start despite, after replacing Australian-born Kris Burton, missing two penalties against England that could have helped Italy to a historic victory over the defending Six Nations champions. But Burton's tactical kicking from fly-half was also widely criticised.

A big blow for Italy is the injury to star prop Martin Castrogiovanni, who will miss the rest of his team's campaign after breaking his rib against England. Lorenzo Cittadini has been handed the ardous task of filling Castrogiovanni's boots, while Michele Rizzo replaces the dropped Andrea Lo Cicero.

The Castrogiovanni injury is a set-back Italy could do without, but with Italy looking for their first win in the championship, the hunger to win will still be there as they bid to avoid a 13th straight Six Nations loss to the Irish.

Ones to watch:

For Ireland: Keith Earls was our player to watch against Wales, but was a late withdrawal for personal reasons. He was named to start against France, but this time the weather kept him out. The Munster man will be hoping it's third time lucky this time round as he lines up in Ireland's famous number 13 jersey to prove he's the best player to fill Brian O'Driscoll's shoes.

For Italy: Tobias Botes made the headlines for all the wrong reasons in only his second Test match for Italy when he came on as a replacement at fly-half against England. He has a been given a chance to make amends, but will be targeted by the Irishmen from the kick-off.

Head to head: While Italy are keeping ball in hand a bit more and being more expansive, the Ireland pack will be bracing themselves for another ferocious forwards battle. The Azzurri are one of the best in the business when it comes to the maul, scrum and are exceptionally good around the fringes. But while Italy may be stronger up front, Ireland are stronger at the breakdown - an area the visitors must match if they are to achieve victory.

Recent results:
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: Whilst Italy have been a far more competitive unit thus far this season, they just can't keep it up for 80 minutes. Defeat is not an option for Ireland and we're expecting them to come out all guns blazing. Ireland to win by 14 points.

Six Nations betting odds

The teams:

Ireland: 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Tommy Bowe, 13 Keith Earls, 12 Gordon D'Arcy, 11 Andrew Trimble, 10 Jonathan Sexton, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Jamie Heaslip, 7 Sean O'Brien, 6 Stephen Ferris, 5 Paul O'Connell (c), 4 Donncha O'Callaghan, 3 Mike Ross, 2 Rory Best, 1 Cian Healy.
Replacements: 16 Sean Cronin, 17 Tom Court, 18 Donnacha Ryan, 19 Peter O'Mahony, 20 Eoin Reddan, 21 Ronan O'Gara, 22 Fergus McFadden.

Italy: 15 Andrea Masi, 14 Giovanbattista Venditti, 13 Tommaso Benvenuti, 12 Alberto Sgarbi, 11 Luke McLean, 10 Tobias Botes, 9 Edoardo Gori, 8 Sergio Parisse (c), 7 Robert Barbieri, 6 Alessandro Zanni, 5 Marco Bortolami, 4 Quintin Geldenhuys, 3 Lorenzo Cittadini, 2 Leonardo Ghiraldini, 1 Michele Rizzo.
Replacements: 16 Tommaso D'Apice, 17 Fabio Staibano, 18 Antonio Pavanello, 19 Simone Favaro, 20 Fabio Semenzato, 21 Kris Burton, 22 Gonzalo Canale.

Date: Saturday, February 25
Venue: Aviva Stadium, Dublin
Kick-off: 13.30 (13.30 GMT)
Weather forecast: Overcast with patches of sunshine. High of 10C and a low of 6C.
Referee: Craig Joubert (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Nigel Owens (Wales), David Changleng (Scotland)
TMO: Nigel Whitehouse (Wales)

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PosTeamPPts
1Ireland58
2England58
3Wales56
4France56
5Scotland52
6Italy50