Preview: Ireland v Italy

Date published: October 2 2015

It seems remarkable to think that just two years ago Italy beat Ireland in Rome, finishing ahead of their visitors in the Six Nations.

That marked the end of the Declan Kidney era with Joe Schmidt taking over for the subsequent November Tests, and the two teams have gone in opposite directions ever since.

With the two Italian domestic teams in disarray, Italy have gone backwards, and the case for opening up the Six Nations to the likes of Georgia and Romania is getting stronger.

Ireland, on the other hand, have won back-to-back Six Nations titles, and look as well-placed as any northern hemisphere side to challenge for the World Cup.

Sunday's game at the Olympic Stadium should have been the first real challenge for Ireland, following clashes with Canada and a tired Romania to ease into the competition.

However, an injury-decimated Italian side should pose little problem either, and if Ireland pick up the win as expected, both they and France will have secured a spot in the quarter-finals.

Italy will still believe they can be a fly in the ointment, but even with the return of inspirational skipper Sergio Parisse, they look too limited to spring a surprise.

An aging pack is no longer a dominant force, even with some classy operators in Parisse and Joshua Furno, while in the backs they are relying far too much on a few players with potential rather than pedigree to carry them.

Against a well-structured Irish side, it's difficult to see that succeeding, and once again Italy are set to miss out on the quarter-finals.

In fact it's got to the stage where a Romanian win over Italy in their final game of the pool stages next week would appear more likely than an upset in this one.

Players to watch: 

For Ireland: Having missed the first two games of the tournament through injury, Robbie Henshaw makes his return for Ireland alongside a new centre partner in Keith Earls. The combination of a powerful inside centre alongside a quicker, more evasive outside centre looks promising and with Jared Payne's foot injury making him a doubt for the final game against France, this will be an important test for the Irish midfield.

For Italy: Sergio Parisse has played just one game for Italy since the Six Nations, their narrow loss to Wales in Cardiff in their final warm-up game. It was no coincidence that they were much-improved in that game, and there is a huge weight of expectation on him to do the same against Ireland. It's quite an ask for the returning skipper, but if anyone can manage it, it's Parisse.

Head-to-head: The Italian scrum has been the bedrock of their side for most of the professional era, but they struggled against Ireland when the teams met in Rome during the Six Nations. With Martin Castrogiovanni absent, it will be Lorenzo Cittadini who gets the nod at tighthead, and he's arguably been deserving of a starting role for a number of seasons now. He'll go up against Jack McGrath, who also has plenty to prove, as Ireland decide on their best team for the decisive game with France in a week.

Team news: Ireland are without Jared Payne and Rob Kearney for this game, but Robbie Henshaw is back in midfield. Simon Zebo continues at full-back, while Keith Earls shifts to the centres to replace Payne. That opens up a spot for Tommy Bowe out wide, while elsewhere it's largely as expected with Joe Schmidt's first choice team. Jack McGrath comes back in at loosehead for the recovering Cian Healy.

Italy welcome back Sergio Parisse at number eight, with Simone Favaro also coming into the back row. Michele Rizzo gets the start at loosehead, and Andrea Manici replaces the injured Leonardo Ghiraldini. The only change in the backs sees Michele Campagnaro come back in for Tommaso Benvenuti.

Previous results:

2015: Ireland won 26-3 in Rome
2014: Ireland won 46-7 in Dublin
2013: Italy won 22-15 in Rome
2012: Ireland won 42-10 in Dublin
2011: Ireland won 36-6 in Dunedin
2011: Ireland won 13-11 in Rome
2010: Ireland won 29-11 in Dublin
2009: Ireland won 38-9 in Rome
2008: Ireland won 16-11 in Dublin
2007: Ireland won 23-20 in Belfast
2007: Ireland won 51-24 in Rome
2006: Ireland won 26-16 in Dublin

Prediction: Ireland have looked convincing so far in the tournament and should have far too much for Italy, even with a couple of injury absentees. Ireland by 15!

The teams:

Ireland: 15 Simon Zebo, 14 Tommy Bowe, 13 Keith Earls, 12 Robbie Henshaw, 11 Dave Kearney, 10 Johnny Sexton, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Jamie Heaslip, 7 Sean O'Brien, 6 Peter O'Mahony, 5 Paul O'Connell (c), 4 Iain Henderson, 3 Mike Ross, 2 Rory Best, 1 Jack McGrath
Replacements: 16 Sean Cronin, 17 Cian Healy, 18 Nathan White, 19 Devin Toner, 20 Chris Henry, 21 Eoin Reddan, 22 Ian Madigan, 23 Luke Fitzgerald

Italy: 15 Luke McLean, 14 Leonardo Sarto, 13 Michele Campagnaro, 12 Gonzalo Garcia, 11 Giovanbattista Venditti, 10 Tommaso Allan, 9 Edoardo Gori, 8 Sergio Parisse (c), 7 Simone Favaro, 6 Francesco Minto, 5 Josh Furno, 4 Quintin Geldenhuys, 3 Lorenzo Cittadini, 2 Andrea Manici, 1 Matias Aguero.
Replacements: 16 Davide Giazzon, 17 Michele Rizzo, 18 Dario Chistolini, 19 Alessandro Zanni, 20 Mauro Bergamasco, 21 Guglielmo Palazzani, 22 Carlo Canna, 23 Tommaso Benvenuti.

Date: Sunday, October 4
Venue: Olympic Stadium, London
Kick-off: 16:45 local 
Referee: Jérôme Garcès (France)
Assistant referees: Pascal Gauzère (France), Angus Gardner (Australia)
Television match official: Graham Hughes (England)