Brunel: Ireland weaker without influence of O’Driscoll

Italy believe they’ll play a significantly weakened Irish team in today’s Six Nations showdown because Brian O’Driscoll is unfit to play.

So said head coach Jacques Brunel, who believes O’Driscoll is as important to the Irish cause as their totemic captain, Sergio Parisse, is for them.

“I certainly hope that O’Driscoll’s absence will allow us to face a weaker Irish team,” said Brunel yesterday.

“It’s true Brian’s influence is just as important to the Irish side in the same way that Sergio Parisse is for us.

“But I also think Gordon D’Arcy is a very experienced player and has a strong influence on this Irish team too.”

Brunel, however, doesn’t go along with the theory that Ireland are an ageing team in decline since winning the 2009 Grand Slam.

“No, I don’t think so,” he says. “One of the main strengths of this Irish team is that every year they bring in new players and perform just as consistently. Maybe it’s true that the locks have played many games together but the team in general has been renewed. They have a very good number nine now, and (Keith) Earls can play just as well in both the centre and on the wing. Johnny Sexton is performing well at number 10 too.

“So I think they’re still benefiting from the experience in the squad, but moving forward in other ways.”

Brunel would certainly like to have Ireland’s options in the out-half position today. Italy have never really adequately replaced kicking legend, Diego Dominguez, in the pivotal position, and today South African-born Tobias Botes will start his first Six Nations match.

But while Ireland might have a relative embarrassment of riches in the position in the shape of Sexton and Ronan O’Gara, Brunel feels that such options can also be a cause of concern.

He explained: “Two or three years ago Ireland decided to put their faith in a young but very talented player in the shape of Sexton. But at the same time they can still call on a very experienced player like O’Gara who was the defining influence in the last two matches that Ireland and Italy played, in Rome and in Dunedin.

“Ireland are lucky to have both of them, but on the other hand it’s probably not a good thing that it’s still a little unclear who the first pick is.”

Brunel admitted yesterday the Italians are still suffering a hangover from their defeat by England, a match they feel they should really have won.

Drawing on the positives, he believes their defence is improving from game to game, but says they’ll have to fight fire with fire at the breakdown today if they’re to come away from Dublin with the victory.

“It will be a difficult match for us because Ireland have good experience in their forwards and a very strong back-row who work hard at the breakdown. The big challenge for us is to not allow them to dictate the pace of the match. We’re going into the game with two defeats, but Ireland are probably a much more confident team. So it’ll be important for us to show a lot of spirit.”

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