This is a more significant match for Italy than the game against Wales last Sunday, writes David Shonfield.
History will be made tomorrow in the Stadio Olimpico.
Conor O’Shea is not the first Irish coach to take on his own country – Eddie O’Sullivan did it with the USA in the 2011 World Cup, on a wet and windy day in New Plymouth. But that was a very different challenge to a match in Rome in front of a partisan crowd in Italy’s national stadium.
As if in honour of the occasion one Italian rugby website has taken to referring to the coach as Conchuir O’Sé, even if most of the fans are sticking with Conor or even COS. However the build-up to this game has been low-key, although the team announcement was unexpectedly delayed from Tuesday lunchtime to Wednesday night.
But this is a special occasion. For one thing Italy have not one but two Irishmen in charge – the second being Stephen Aboud, whose role as head of technical development may turn out to be even more important than O’Shea’s. And secondly, Ireland come with the aura of that win against the All Blacks.
Never mind subsequent results, that landmark victory means this is a more significant match for Italy than the game against Wales last Sunday, which turned out literally to be a damp squib.
The poor conditions affected both sides, especially in the first half, and might conceivably explain some of Italy’s extraordinarily high penalty count. Tomorrow’s forecast, sunny and dry, promises a much better game and O’Shea and his defensive coach Brendan Venter will be expecting a more disciplined approach, above all from the forwards, as well as more consistency from the referee.
O’Shea’s complaint about referees and the need for a level playing field were backed up on Tuesday by forwards’ coach Giampiero De Carli, who referred to “several situations in which the Welsh were not penalised while we, with roles reversed, were.”
The media and some fans agreed, but others have argued that while the skewed penalty count may have been a factor, it was not an alibi. “Professional sides naturally put pressure on the referee to award penalties in their favour,” said one. “We are simply less good at it.”
In fact the statistics show that Italy usually do not concede more penalties than their opponents: nine or 10 in last season’s Six Nations, with the exception of the match against France. The penalty count was 9-9 in Dublin last year, and they conceded significantly fewer than England in last year’s match in Rome, when tomorrow’s referee, the New Zealander Glen Jackson, was in charge.
The biggest disappointment for Italian rugby fans against Wales, along with the last 20 minutes, was the turnout.
Last season the Olimpico was more or less packed to its 70,000 capacity for the games against England and Scotland.
Last week the attendance was barely 41,000, and of those nearly half were Wales fans.
Considering there were 22,000 at Italy’s game against South Africa in Florence, which is not a traditional rugby venue, you would expect more for the Six Nations than a half-empty Olimpico. Hopefully, better weather should mean a bigger and noisier crowd which should help to motivate both sides.
The overwhelming feeling among the fans is that Conor and his coaching team are bringing real improvements, but there is a long distance to travel.
“We are getting better,” said one, “but at the same time so are other sides such as France and Scotland, who are both taking big steps forward with the new regulations.
“We have improved defensively, but we are not at the same level as other countries when you look at performance over the whole 80 minutes.”
The test against Ireland will be whether they can sustain a higher level of intensity when things go against them.
Ian McKinley - once of Leinster, now with Treviso – knows more than most people about coming back against adversity, and he feels strongly that O’Shea and his men are on the right track.
“You’ve seen in the November internationals that Italy can put in a performance,” he said on Wednesday.
“Obviously the win against South Africa was huge. Then the following week to lose against Tonga, there’s that inconsistency.
“Against Wales they put in a 50-60 minute performance that was really positive and then just didn’t finish it off. There’s a lot of talent here, it’s just creating a culture of winning.”
O’Shea has made four changes for tomorrow’s game that bring back significant forward experience: physically they can compete with Ireland but there are tactical problems to solve, especially in the line out.
Leonardo Ghiraldini starts as hooker and Simone Favaro returns from injury in the back row. Dries Van Schalkwyk is also back and both George Biagi and Abraham Steyn drop to the bench. The other change is on the wing, where Angelo Esposito replaces Giulio Bisegni, who was a surprise choice against Wales.
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