Preview: Ireland v Italy

Date published: March 11 2016

Ireland will be looking for a shot at redemption when they host Italy in their bottom of the table clash in Dublin on Saturday.

Both sides are winless after three rounds of matches with Ireland lying above the Azzurri on the table thanks to their draw against Wales in their opener.

As the defending champions, Ireland know nothing less than a convincing victory will appease their demanding fans. After guiding his adoptive country to back-to-back Championship triumphs, Ireland's head coach Joe Schmidt has found the going tough in the last six months.

After their quarter-final defeat to Argentina at the World Cup, it was expected that Ireland would bounce back by winnning an uprecedented third successive Six Nations title. 

But their campaign hasn't gone according to plan. That draw against Wales was followed by defeats to France and England and it's fair to say their campaign has gone on a downward trajectory, although they were competitive in all their matches.

Despite being without a win after three matches, Schmidt has said he feels his team are not far off the form which won them the Championship in 2014 and 2015.

He conceded that he is feeling the pressure to secure that much-needed first victory, however, and knows they must work hard to achieve that goal this weekend.

“I sense it (pressure), I’ll admit it to you, I really sense it," said Schmidt.

"I know we have to win this weekend
“And I’m sure players sense it as well but it hasn’t been a topic of conversation because we can’t really control all the variables and the outcome.

“So what we’ve tried to say is, ‘right, here are some variables that we have to be really good at and we need to be prepared for.”

Italy's campaign have gone similarly to Ireland's but, unlike their hosts, they have no points on the table. They delivered a competitive performance in their opener against France but eventually suffered a narrow 23-21 defeat before losing by big margins to England (40-9) and Scotland (36-20).

Despite those results, Azzurri lock Quintin Geldenhuys feels they can cause an upset this weekend.

"Ireland are under pressure, a situation they are not really used to," he said.

"We must further increase this pressure once we're on the field. We have the opportunity to go and play a great game.

"We have the chance now to produce a great match against, and impose our own game on Ireland."

Team News: There are just two changes to Ireland's starting XV that lost 21-10 to England at Twickenham in Round Three. Rob Kearney is ruled out of the match and his place goes to Simon Zebo. The fit-again Jared Payne returns to partner Robbie Henshaw in midfield with the latter reverting to inside centre having lined out at 13 against England. Rory Best will become the seventh Irish player to hit a half-century in the Championship after Brian O'Driscoll, Ronan O'Gara, Mike Gibson, John Hayes, Willie John McBride and Paul O'Connell while replacement hooker Sean Cronin is set to win his 50th cap if he comes off the bench. Connacht prop Finlay Bealham is in line for his Test debut after he came in to Ireland's matchday squad as a late replacement for Cian Healy, who was ruled out through injury. Bealham comes onto the bench as front row cover alongside Cronin and Nathan White.

Meanwhile, Italy have made four changes to their run-on side after their Round Three loss to Scotland. Captain and hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini has been ruled out of the matchday 23 due to a shoulder injury and scrum-half Edoardo Gori is also sidelined with a fractured rib. Davide Giazzon replaces Ghiraldini while Guglielmo Palazzani comes in for Gori. Edoardo Padovini starts at fly-half which means that Kelly Haimona drops to the bench. The final change sees injured lock Joshua Furno being replaced by George Biagi.

Players to watch: 

For Ireland: Rob Kearney's injury gives Simon Zebo a chance to shine in the number 15 jersey. Primarily a winger, the Munsterman is not unfamilar with the full-back role, however, and delivered a solid performance in the position in Ireland's tournament opener against Wales. Zebo's defence has been criticised in the past and that's an area of his game which Italy are expected to target but he showed against Wales that he can be a huge threat on attack and if he finds the ball in space he is expected to do damage.

For Italy: With Kelly Haimona benched and Edoardo Gori injured, Zebre's halfbacks Edoardo Padovani and Guglielmo Palazzani get the opportunity to call the shots at Test level. Padovani is playing in his second Test – after making his but against England in Round Two – while Palazzani is winning his 18th Test cap and both face arguarbly the biggest assignments of their respective careers. Their decision-making and game management will be crucial if Italy want to break their duck.

Head to head: The midfield battle between Jared Payne and Michele Campagnaro should provide plenty of entertainment as both are explosive runners who have the ability to wreak havoc with ball in hand. Payne returns to action after recovering from injury and will be keen leave his mark on this match with an authorative display. Campagnaro has been in fine form throughout Italy's campaign. A fleet-footed attacker, who runs great lines Capagnaro will relish his duel with Payne, who seldom plays poorly in the green jersey.

Previous results: 

2015: Ireland won 16-9 in London
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: Although there's pressure on Ireland ,they shouldn't have too much problems winning this one. Ireland to win by 15 points!

The teams:

Ireland: 15 Simon Zebo, 14 Andrew Trimble, 13 Jared Payne, 12 Robbie Henshaw, 11 Keith Earls, 10 Jonathan Sexton, 9 Conor Murray,  8 Jamie Heaslip, 7 Josh van der Flier, 6 CJ Stander, 5 Devin Toner, 4 Donnacha Ryan, 3 Mike Ross, 2 Rory Best (c), 1 Jack McGrath
Replacements: 16 Sean Cronin, 17 Finlay Bealham, 18 Nathan White, 19 Ultan Dillane, 20 Rhys Ruddock, 21 Kieran Marmion,  22 Ian Madigan, 23 Fergus McFadden

Italy: 15 David Odiete, 14 Leonardo Sarto, 13 Michele Campagnaro, 12 Gonzalo Garcia, 11 Mattia Bellini, 10 Edoardo Padovani, 9 Guglielmo Palazzani, 8 Sergio Parisse, 7 Alessandro Zanni, 6 Francesco Minto, 5 Marco Fuser, 4 George Biagi, 3 Lorenzo Cittadini, 2 Davide Giazzon, 1 Andrea Lovotti
Replacements: 16 Oliviero Fabiani, 17 Matteo Zanusso, 18 Dario Chistolini, 19 Quintin Geldenhuys, 20 Abraham Steyn, 21 Alberto Lucchese, 22 Kelly Haimona, 23 Luke McLean

Date: Saturday, 12 March
Venue: Aviva Stadium, Dublin
Kick-off: 13:30 GMT
Referee: Angus Gardner (Australia)
Assistant Referees: Romain Poite (France), Marius van der Westhuizen (South Africa)
TMO: George Ayoub (Australia)