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Preview: Italy v Ireland

15th March 2013 00:08

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SKY_MOBILE Peter OMahony Ireland v Italy

Fingertips: Peter O'Mahony

Two sides who have shown flashes of their best without hitting the heights - Italy and Ireland - will begin the festivities on Saturday.

Starting with the hosts, Italy come into this weekend buoyed by their second-half performance against England at Twickenham.

Everything about the Italians looked sharper - their physicality, accuracy in defence and attack all appeared on-song. Jacques Brunel cited a change in Italy's approach as the main reason for their improvement, reducing the workload in their training schedule to feel "fresher" as the match wore on.

It paid off handsomely. Twickenham has rarely been colder but few were feeling the arctic conditions given the drama unfolding on the pitch infront of them. Could Italy final defeat England? At the home of English rugby, they have never been closer.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that Italy's best work in 2013 has come after substantial periods of rest. They burst out of the blocks against France showing the similar qualities that served them so well last Sunday - aggressive, direct and executing at a higher level that we see from the Azzurri all too rarely.

Their crop of talented players, spearheaded by Sergio Parisse but flanked by Alessandro Zanni, Martin Castrogiovanni, Luke McLean and Andrea Masi, have the potential to achieve so much more, although age is not on their side.

That is an issue that Ireland have been familiar with for some time. Brian O'Driscoll added to his legend by dragging himself back onto the turf against France last weekend. Concussion, a dead leg and a lacerated ear are not enough to stop the great one taking the field one more time in this championship to represent his country. If the rumours are to be believed - it might be his last.

Which would be incentive enough, if Ireland were not already kicking themselves. A Six Nations that promised so much after 47 minutes in Cardiff has gradually disintegrated. The manner of their defeat against Scotland - racking up 71 percent possession and 77 percent territory - was not far short of embarrassing.

When 13-3 up against France their luck appeared to be turning, before the outstanding Louis Picamoles struck. Pride is at stake in Rome, as are reputations.

Jamie Heaslip's captaincy has been a rocky road thus far after a promising beginning, with the number eight nowhere to be seen amongst the statistics for top performers. Rob Kearney is another struggling to find his best form. There is still time to impress Warren Gatland ahead of the Lions tour to Australia, but a good performance against Italy will boost their chances.

Which leaves Declan Kidney. The former Munster boss took Ireland to the summit with the Grand Slam title in 2009, but has struggled to match the height of that accomplishment since. Ireland's win record under Kidney since that success sits at 48 percent - with exceptional victories such as the win over Australia at the Rugby World Cup mingled together with the 60-0 humiliation against the All Blacks last year.

The question is whether Ireland will improve if Kidney stays on - whether he is right man to usher in the new group of stars that include Craig Gilroy, Paddy Jackson and Iain Henderson to take Ireland forward. The confusion over Ireland's fly-half situation in recent weeks signals that all is not right.

Over time, the number of odd selections, loyalty to older players and sets of disappointing results have left Kidney on the edge. The truth is that even a victory over Italy might not be enough to save his job.

Players to watch:

For Italy: Luke McLean was the sole try scorer at Twickenham last weekend, but his fellow winger Giovambattista Venditti was the man who stole the attention. Vendetti's power down the right saw him burst through tacklers and offer a threat that the Azzurri have not witnessed for some time out wide. If Vendetti, McLean and Masi are given enough possession then Italy will cause Ireland problems, because for the first time in a while, they have attacking threats.

For Ireland: A try scorer against Scotland, Craig Gilroy returns to the Irish starting XV after recovering from a groin strain. The Ulster winger has made a bright start to his Test career and will look to add to his current record of two tries in four matches in Rome. Ireland proved at Murrayfield that they have the ability to create opportunities, but their problem was execution. Given the right amount of time and space, Gilroy can take those chances. Attention will also be on Paddy Jackson on his third Test start, having originally been set to drop to the bench before Jonathan Sexton rolled his foot in training.

Head-to-head: Two flankers on opposite sides that have topped the stats throughout this Six Nations Championship. Alessandro Zanni has made more offloads than any other player in the tournament (9) and taken the second highest number of line-outs (15). Ireland's Sean O'Brien on the other hand has made more carries than any other player (55) - in the process playing himself back into the frame for Lions contention. Both offer different skills, but both will play a role in dictating the outcome of Saturday's clash in Rome.

Recent results:

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: A very close call. Italy were magnificent against France at home, but poor against Wales before showing some of their best form in the second-half at Twickenham to restore their confidence. Ireland on the other hand have let results against Scotland and France get away from them after being in control, meaning they are due a victory. Having never lost to Italy in the Six Nations, history is on their side, but do Ireland who are limping into Rome have enough in the tank after that brutal draw in Dublin last weekend? They should just sneak it. Ireland by 3.

Italy: 15 Andrea Masi, 14 Giovambattista Venditti, 13 Gonzalo Canale, 12 Gonzalo Garcia, 11 Luke McLean, 10 Luciano Orquera, 9 Edoardo Gori, 8 Sergio Parisse, 7 Simone Favaro, 6 Alessandro Zanni, 5 Joshua Furno, 4 Quintin Geldenhuys, 3 Lorenzo Cittadini, 2 Leonardo Ghiraldini (c) 1 Andrea Lo Cicero.
Replacements: 16 Davide Giazzon, 17 Michele Rizzo, 18 Alberto de Marchi, 19 Antonio Pavanello, 20 Francesco Minto, 21 Paul Derbyshire, 22 Tobias Botes, 23 Tommaso Benvenuti.

Ireland: 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Craig Gilroy, 13 Brian O'Driscoll, 12 Luke Marshall, 11 Keith Earls, 10 Paddy Jackson, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Jamie Heaslip (c) 7 Sean O'Brien, 6 Peter O'Mahony, 5 Donnacha Ryan, 4 Mike McCarthy, 3 Mike Ross, 2 Rory Best, 1 Cian Healy.
Replacements: 16 Sean Cronin, 17 David Kilcoyne, 18 Stephen Archer, 19 Devin Toner, 20 Iain Henderson, 21 Paul Marshall, 22 Ian Madigan, 23 Luke Fitzgerald.

Date: Saturday, March 16
Kick-off: 15:30 (14:30 GMT)
Venue: Stadio Olimpico, Rome
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)
Assistant referees: Romain Poite (France), Glen Jackson (New Zealand)
Television match official: Jim Yuille (Scotland)

by Ben Coles
@bencoles_

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