PREVIEW: Ireland v Italy
SIX NATIONS ROUND TWO: Ireland host Italy in the Six Nations on Saturday with the hosts seeking to make it two wins from two after Johnny Sexton's dramatic overtime drop goal sealed a 15-13 win over France last Saturday.
Ireland are hot favourites to win but with the Six Nations expected to go down to the wire, earning a bonus point for scoring four tries is a must - particularly given England did it against the Azzurri last week. Ireland were the only side not to score a try last weekend and head coach Joe Schmidt is asking for patience from fans if the tries don't come early this time.
"I remember four years ago when we won the championship by points-differential, we scored 19 points [against Italy] in the last six minutes," said Schmidt. "If the crowd can be patient, maybe we can do something similar."
Perhaps emblematic of the strength in depth the Irish have developed under Schmidt is the back row. A few years ago losing Sean O'Brien and his replacement Josh van der Flier would have provoked panic stations. Instead, Dan Leavy proved himself in the heat of battle in Paris and gets his first Six Nations start alongside Leinster teammate Jack Conan, who is in at No.8 for Christiaan Stander. Schmidt believes their introduction will not unbalance the back row.
"Peter O'Mahony brings leadership and experience and the two young lads will bring enthusiasm and hunger," said Schmidt. Italy's old warhorse captain and No.8 Sergio Parisse may have a thing or two to say about that.
Conor O'Shea has drawn plaudits from the likes of Eddie Jones and Schmidt for his stewardship of Italy, the poisoned chalice of the Six Nations. Even experienced coaches Nick Mallett and Jacques Brunel failed to engender a significant improvement in Italy's results.
O'Shea will hope his team can give a good enough showing in front of his compatriots on Saturday that come the time 52-year-old Schmidt moves on - his Ireland contract runs till next year's World Cup - the Italy coach's name will figure among the main contenders to succeed him.
Veteran Ireland fullback Rob Kearney has been the undisputed first choice for Leinster and Ireland for the past few years, but 20-year-old Jordan Larmour is starting to make some noise.
With the World Cup a year away, his charge is coming at the right time. O'Shea made no bones about how he sees Larmour.
"He reminds me of a young Christian Cullen (All Black) because I haven't seen someone who can step off both feet like that," said O'Shea, a former Ireland fullback himself.
"I couldn't even step off one foot, I just ran straight the whole time! He is box office, isn't he?"
Schmidt has no doubts about Larmour's ability under the high ball or work rate and insists his selection is not a risk.
"To be honest you don't select a player to be looked after as he should have an expectation of what is expected of him," said Schmidt.
Should Italy suffer another heavy defeat on Saturday it will raise more questions as to whether Georgia should replace them in the Six Nations. Italy and O'Shea can point to a largely laudatory performance against England, but the fact is they still shipped points in the final quarter. Whilst Six Nations chiefs have thus far resisted calls for Georgia to replace them, the clamour would grow if the Georgians beat Italy in a scheduled November Test.
Players to watch:
For Ireland: Jonathan Sexton proved once again that he is a match-winner and he is expected to run the show at the Aviva Stadium. Sexton's halfback partner Conor Murray is a force behind the ruck and his decision-making is world class. Lock Devin Toner is a colossus up front and in the line-out, while prop Tadhg Furlong is a powerful scrummager and he is not afraid to play with the ball in open play.
For Italy: Centre Tommaso Boni was outstanding out wide against England and he could give Ireland some trouble with his big frame. Flyhalf Tommaso Allan is a much better playmaker in the No.10 jersey than Carlo Canna. His offloads and passes unlocked the English defence on a few occasions. Captain and No.8 Sergio Parisse will be looking for a big performance after his poor showing against England.
Head to head: With Jonathan Sexton and Tommaso Allan in the No.10 jerseys there should be some exciting attacking play from both teams, but Sexton's experience will probably overshadow the Italian. The battle in the midfield will be an intriguing one with talented Robbie Henshaw and Bundee Aki up against Tommaso Boni and Tommaso Castello.
2017: Ireland won 63-10, Rome
2016: Ireland won 58-15, Dublin
2015: Ireland won 16-9, London (WC Pool match)
2015: Ireland won 26-3, Rome
2014: Ireland won 46-7, Dublin
2013: Italy won 22-15, Rome
2012: Ireland won 42-10, Dublin
2011: Ireland won 36-6, Dunedin (WC Pool match)
2011: Ireland won 13-11, Rome
2010: Ireland won 29-11, Dublin
Prediction: This is the easiest match to predict in Round Two. Ireland will win by 20 points or more. The match will probably be over by half-time.
Ireland: 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Keith Earls, 13 Robbie Henshaw, 12 Bundee Aki, 11 Jacob Stockdale, 10 Jonathan Sexton, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Jack Conan, 7 Dan Leavy, 6 Peter O'Mahony, 5 Devin Toner, 4 Iain Henderson, 3 Tadhg Furlong, 2 Rory Best (captain), 1 Jack McGrath.
Replacements: 16 Sean Cronin, 17 Cian Healy, 18 Andrew Porter, 19 Quinn Roux, 20 Christiaan Stander, 21 Kieran Marmion, 22 Joey Carbery, 23 Jordan Larmour.
Italy: 15 Matteo Minozzi, 14 Tommaso Benvenuti, 13 Tommaso Boni, 12 Tommaso Castello, 11 Mattia Bellini, 10 Tommaso Allan, 9 Marcello Violi, 8 Sergio Parisse (captain), 7 Abraham Steyn, 6 Sebastian Negri Da Oleggio, 5 Dean Budd, 4 Alessandro Zanni, 3 Simone Ferrari, 2 Luca Bigi, 1 Nicola Quaglio.
Replacements: 16 Leonardo Ghiraldini, 17 Andrea Lovotti, 18 Tiziano Pasquali, 19 Federico Ruzza, 20 Maxime Mata Mbanda, 21 Edoardo Gori, 22 Carlo Canna, 23 Jayden Hayward.
Date: Saturday, February 10
Venue: Aviva Stadium Dublin
Kick-off: 14.15 (15.15 Italian time; 14.15 GMT)
Expected weather: It will be wet with showers expected. There will be a high of 12°C and a low of 0°C
Referee: Romain Poite (France)
Assistant referees: Pascal Gaüzère (France), Matthew Carley (England)
TMO: David Grashoff (England)
Agence France-Presse & rugby365com