For some unknown reason the legendary Irish midfield duo of Brian O’Driscoll and Gordon D’Arcy were blamed for the lack of attacking thrust in the recent defeat at Twickenham.
The kernel of the problem that day stemmed from the intense pressure put on the half-back pairing of Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton, who were offered neither time nor space to operate.
The knock-on effect was there for all to see with precious little ground available for the Leinster duo to generate line breaks or work their magic.
Italy will seek to replicate that pressure but are no way as organised or disciplined in keeping their defensive line intact as England under the direction of highly-rated defence coach Andy Farrell.
With three of their back line graduating from last season’s U20 side, Italy are committed and enthusiastic in their defensive duties but not quite as coordinated as they need to be at this level.
In Michele Campagnaro they have unearthed a young midfield gem with massive potential but there are times when his eagerness to shoot out of the defensive line for the big hit could have cost Italy dearly. You have to admire his willingness to make those crucial decisions and at times, like when he smashed his Welsh opposite number Scott Williams at the Millennium Stadium on his championship debut, his big hits have the capacity to lift all around him.
In O’Driscoll, however, he faces the consummate professional and one still capable of making you look silly. Ireland will focus on Campagnaro’s inexperience today by inviting him to break the line and expose himself to the quick inside pass from O’Driscoll for Rob Kearney or one of the Irish wingers running against the weak inside shoulder of the Italian defenders.
Italy also tend to defend narrow, offering space out wide. This will have been noted by Joe Schmidt and once he recognises where the space is likely to be, he is the most astute coach around at devising power plays to exploit such opportunities. Planning out such moves at national level is markedly different to his spell at the Leinster helm when Schmidt had greater time to oversee the countless reps in training for those potential plays to expose the defensive chinks in the next opponent. After a month in camp that issue has been addressed in recent weeks and Ireland have the quality and execution to take advantage of a very willing and exciting Italian back line whose naivety and lack of experience at the top level could be exposed today by the most enduring midfield partnership in the history of the game.
The set piece battle today promises to be fascinating. Under new forwards coach John Plumtree, Ireland’s accuracy and proficiency at the lineout has been sensational. Three turnovers from 48 deliveries, a success ratio of 94%, confirms Ireland’s status as the best operators out of touch in the tournament.
That accuracy has been a major contributor to the success of Ireland’s lineout maul with every player absolutely clear as to his role in the manoeuvre, be it in the air or on the deck.
For tactical reasons, with the expectation that the big English pack would have spent a lot of time working out how to best defend against the drive, Ireland deviated from the practice for the entire opening half in Twickenham.
That will not be the case today as Ireland will seek to tie in as many Italian forwards as possible, thus leaving more space for their experienced back line to exploit.
The challenge here is that the Italian lineout is only second in terms of accuracy to Ireland in the championship with a highly respectable return of 89%.
Italy have included three second rows in their line up with Josh Furno deputising in the back row for the injured Alessandro Zanni with the towering Quentin Geldenhuys and Marcos Bortolami in the engine room.
With that additional height expect Italy to apply big pressure in the air on the Irish throw. The downside of this, however, is that Furno may not offer the solid foundation required to repel the power of the Irish drive on the deck as his first inclination will be to leave the ground. This affords an opportunity for the Irish maul to go into overdrive.
As always, the Italian scrum, with the ever disruptive Martin Castrogiovanni at tight head, will be out to splinter the Irish front row as they did successfully against Wales and Scotland in the opening halves of those games.
The difference for Ireland this year is that they now have a replacement trio entering the fray earlier than normal — and all are equally adept at maintaining pressure at the scrum to the final whistle.
That offers Ireland a sustained platform from which to attack right into the vital closing phase of the game when the Italian defensive effort is likely to be waning.
Given the importance of a healthy points differential heading to the Stade de France, that could prove pivotal to Ireland’s championship aspirations.
Italy are at their menacing best when their first choice back row of Zanni, Sergio Parisse and Mauro Bergamasco combine as a well balanced, experienced unit to wreak havoc at the breakdown. It’s no coincidence that the only time that unit have started together in this championship was in Italy’s best performance on the opening day against Wales in Cardiff. Only five points in arrears against the reigning champions with 10 minutes left, the Italian back row were outstanding. When it was confirmed earlier in the week that Zanni, superb against Ireland when Italy won in Rome last season, and Bergamasco had been ruled out through injury, you feared for the Italians.
When the news broke on Thursday that Parisse, their inspirational captain and best player for over a decade was also ruled out due to back and calf problems, this tie took on a different complexion.
All of a sudden the loss of one of Ireland’s form players in Peter O’Mahony for this game doesn’t appear quite as severe. While their back row pairing of Robert Barbieri and Paul Derbyshire line out together on a regular basis for Benetton Treviso, Furno is far more effective in the second row. Italy’s defensive shape around the ruck is already suspect. Without three first choice forwards at the breakdown this is likely to be exploited even further by the type of execution that defined Rob Kearney’s try in Twickenham.
With Parisse out and Italy suspect at half back, I expect Ireland to mark O’Driscoll’s last home game in green with a convincing win.