By Ian Cusack
Declan Kidney and his players must be itching to get the showdown with Italy done and dusted. Jacques Brunel’s side represent an awkward hurdle which Ireland must overcome before setting their sights on a return visit to Paris.
Events have conspired against the Irish team thus far in the tournament, some within their control, some outside.
A last-minute Leigh Halfpenny penalty snatched victory from their grasp in the opening round, a sucker punch for Kidney’s men regardless of how deserving the Welsh were.
Shambolic planning on the part of the FFR, allied with utter disregard for anything other than television viewership, resulted in a non-event at the Stade de France two weeks ago provoking an unwelcome, and from the Irish camp’s perspective, distracting debate on when to reschedule.
The net result is a team who haven’t seen game time in three weeks - leaving them more time to dwell on their shortcomings against Wales - and who must now face into four Test matches in consecutive weeks. If Ireland win this Six Nations, they’ll certainly have done it the hard way.
Captain Paul O’Connell revealed during the week that the encounter with Italy marks the most physically demanding game of the Six Nations, not the ideal start to the four-in-a-row.
Another frustrating reality for O’Connell and his team is that despite the progress Italy have shown in recent years Ireland are still expected to win, anything else would be nothing short of catastrophic.
However, Brunel’s team selection may have done Ireland a few favours, particularly his decision to play South-African born Tobias Botes at outhalf, relegating Kristopher Burton to the replacements bench.
The selection is a big vote of confidence in Botes who normally operates at scrum-half for Treviso alongside Burton who is a more conventional 10. This is presumably a statement of Brunel’s intent to play the more expansive game the Italian camp has been championing since his appointment.
Botes’ inclusion also guarantees pressure on both starting flyhalves to kick their goals. Having fluffed two opportunities to kick Italy to victory over England, nerves may come into play if he is off target early on Saturday.
Meanwhile, the debate over Ireland’s coveted number 10 jersey rages on. Three unsuccessful attempts at goal from the boot of Jonathan Sexton against Wales have added weight to the argument in favour of starting O’Gara.
Furthermore Sexton failed to really control the game and there is a general feeling that he has yet to sparkle in an Irish jersey the same way he does for Leinster. The player himself recently admitted he has had “some great days in the green shirt and some not so good days”.
With strike players like Bowe, Trimble, Earls and Kearney in the backline, Ireland have a clear edge on their Italian counterparts out wide, something which Kidney will have noted when selecting his flyhalf.
All four French tries against the Azzurri in Round 1 came from the backs. In Sexton, Kidney has opted for his more elusive 10 in terms of running. Sexton is more likely to produce a line break than the Munster veteran and will no doubt look to test Botes’ defence in the unfamiliar outhalf channel.
It’s clear that Sexton has struggled with the competition from O’Gara which has prevented him from relaxing into the number 10 jersey the way he can for his province. But he must earn the right to be Ireland’s go-to outhalf. Until he impresses in consecutive performances O’Gara will continue to challenge for the starting spot.
The absence of experienced centre Gonzalo Canale, whom Brunel has dropped to the bench, hands Ireland even more of an edge out wide with Alberto Sgarbi, who has yet to score a try at international level, taking his place.
Gordon D’Arcy will celebrate his 65th cap on Saturday but it’s hard to avoid thinking he’s only there because there is no other credible candidate for the inside centre role.
James Downey has suffered the same omission most Irish players experience when they ply their trade overseas and at 31 cannot be seen as a real option for the future.
While theories of putting Bowe or Trimble in centre have grown more popular, Kidney’s conservative nature forbids him from making such an experimental move in the middle of the Six Nations.
For all their talk of an expansive game, the Italian strength still unquestionably lies in their pack. However, they travel to Dublin without Martin Castrogiovanni whose leadership and scrummaging will be a big loss to the Azzurri.
If Healy, Best and Ross can match the all-Treviso front row in the scrum the focus will shift to the battle of the backrows where Heaslip and co. will look to neutralise the impact of the talismanic Sergio Parisse and the ever-improving Alessandro Zanni.
It’s clear from the comments Canale and winger Luke McLean made during the week that Italy feel Ireland’s primary weapon lies in their attack of the breakdown.
Both players sounded warnings for referee Craig Joubert who will be the man in the middle, claiming that Ireland are the best team in World rugby at slowing the ball down at ruck time and getting away with it.
If Ireland can be as effective at the breakdown as Italy fear, particularly on their own possession and provide Murray with quick ball, the firepower out wide should yield tries.
However, if Ireland fail to set the tempo early on and allow the Italian pack to drag them into a dogfight it could be a long and gruelling 80 minutes for the Irish forwards.
Prediction: An ugly one but an Irish victory nonetheless by a ten-point margin.