Ireland a level above Italy, says Sergio Parisse

Sergio Parisse believes Ireland are “the best team in the northern hemisphere” but believes Italy can upset them in their RBS 6 Nations opener at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome on Saturday. 

The 31-year-old Italy captain has long been renowned as one of the world’s finest number eights and has now returned to top form after beating niggling back trouble.

The 103-cap skipper is in line to lead Italy into Saturday’s tournament opener, well aware last season’s last-placed finish was a long way from par.

Italy will face Ireland and France in Pool D of the World Cup later this year, with Parisse conceding the Six Nations could have a direct bearing on results in England in the autumn.

“Ireland are probably the best team in the northern hemisphere at the moment,” he said.

“It’s important for us to start the competition well.

“We are not at the same level as Ireland; we beat them two years ago but last year conceded 40 points in Dublin.

“The fact we’re playing them again in the World Cup means the mental point of view will be vital in this game; it will be important to be competitive against them.”

Italy lost all five Six Nations matches last year en route to the wooden spoon, Parisse admitting the last-gasp 21-20 defeat to Scotland in Rome hurt the Azzurri the most.

“I don’t want to bore you with the details, but we had a lot of injury problems (last year) and there were lots of problems for our coach Jacques (Brunel) too,” said Parisse.

“But now we are here to fight for the Six Nations and it’s a chance to try to change things.”

Parisse hopes he can find a “different level” in this year’s Six Nations after a back injury plagued the Italy captain’s wretched 2014.

The 31-year-old has long been renowned as one of the world’s finest number eights, but has admitted he failed to reach his own lofty standards last year.

The Stade Francais loose-forward has finally beaten niggling back trouble to hit top form however, and expects to carry that into Saturday’s opener in Rome.

“Last season was very difficult from my point of view because of injuries,” said Parisse.

“All season I played with pain in my back, I had problems and couldn’t play at my best level.

“I missed last summer’s tour and that gave me the chance to recover properly over five weeks of rest.

“That meant that when I then returned, the problem in my back had gone.

“I’ve been really, really fit since then; it’s allowed me to play to a different level, at one I’m really happy with at my club.

“I’m fit for the championships too, and hopefully I can take that different level into these matches now.”

Parisse trained on his own on Monday as he eased past a slight hamstring tweak, but the classy back-rower completed Tuesday’s full session.

Italy’s Newcastle Falcons lock Josh Furno is confident the Azzurri will put 2014’s nightmare season well behind them.

“We are eager to begin, the Six Nations is the most important event the season and we all can not wait to take the field, do well, and put 2014 behind us.”

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