That is not to say the Italians are to be dismissed out of hand, particularly in light of their first championship victory over the Irish in 14 attempts last year. They continue to have a strong pack capable of mixing it with the world’s best and they have a potent back line full of attacking threat now they have been given licence to run by head coach Jacques Brunel.
Yet there are several compelling reasons why today’s game in Dublin will not be won by the visiting Azzurri. As laudable as last year’s victory was over an injury-battered Ireland side, the fact that it came at Stadio Olimpico is significant. Unlike the legions that conquered Europe and beyond in times of antiquity, this is not an army that marches well once its boots step outside the Gates of Rome.
A draw with Wales in Cardiff in 2006 followed by victory over Scotland at Murrayfield 12 months later represent the high points of Italian away form and a defeat on the road today would a record 18th consecutive bout of travel sickness.
Nor are the omens good for the Azzurri based on their fortunes in this campaign following three defeats in a row, to the Welsh, French and Scots. Brunel’s side made a real go of it in the first two matches and could consider themselves unlucky to have lost either game. They also enjoyed dominance in the first half against the Scots in Rome but defeats came regardless because when Italy fall off the pace, and they do with alarming consistency, they tend to come to a dead halt.
Furthermore, their evolution into a more expansive side happy to play running rugby is leaving them a little more vulnerable to the counter-attacking of more fluent sides than they once were. Against an Ireland side that has been working on sharpening its cutting edge since narrowly missing out to England at Twickenham that could prove fatal.
So far, so bad for Italy but even worse for them is that Brunel has travelled to Ireland without his captain and inspiration Sergio Parisse and if there was any hope of an Italian upset over Joe Schmidt’s side today it disappeared when they left their back-row powerhouse behind. Parisse is Italian rugby’s heart and soul, its pulse and playmaker in a side bereft of world-class talent in their half-backs and if Italy could not manage a win with him in their side this year, how will they fare with him resting on a sofa in Rome?
This, then, is Ireland’s game to lose and there is more than enough in head coach Schmidt’s arsenal to ensure they do not. With the need to rebound from that 13-10 defeat to England uppermost in their minds, Ireland simply have to win to maintain their push for a first title since winning the Grand Slam in 2009.
Tomorrow’s England-Wales game will knock out one rival from the championship race but with the English facing Italy in the final round, Wales playing Scotland and Ireland needing to go to France and win in Paris for the first time since 2000, today is the day Schmidt’s side have to increase the points differential which currently puts them on top of the table.
That will mean implementing the clinical finishing which surfaced just once at Twickenham but otherwise deserted them on six further trips to the England 22 and restoring the bristling intensity which overpowered the Welsh at the breakdown in round two.
We know Ireland can do it, and on the day Brian O’Driscoll says his goodbyes to Lansdowne Road it would be rude not to show us by racking up the points ahead of the grand finale at Stade de France.
O’Driscoll will rightly take centre stage as he makes his world record 140th Test appearance and plays his last home game for Ireland but only as far as the supporters are concerned. It is the Irish fans’ final chance to say goodbye to the centre who led the transformation of the national side from upstarts to contenders on the world stage and, having just one Six Nations title to show for it is scant reward. Which is why Ireland will be focused not on sentiment this weekend but on the cold, calculating and ruthless accumulation of points. The tears and reflection can wait, at least outside the O’Driscoll inner circle of friends and family.
The task at hand today is to ensure there is still a title for him to play for next week.