Fall of Rome key as future starts now

The Irish team huddle during yesterday's Captain's Run at the Stadio Olympico. Picture: INPHO/James Crombie

RBS 6 Nations: Ireland v Italy
Talk of retirement is everywhere in Rome as this season’s RBS 6 Nations threatens to drift off into the ether for Ireland, but after disappointments aplenty in this campaign, Declan Kidney’s side have to come out fighting and finish it off on a high.

With Brian O’Driscoll set to make a decision on whether to sign a new contract and play one more year of top-flight rugby, how his Ireland team-mates perform around him today against Italy at a packed and passionate Stadio Olimpico could help sway the iconic outside centre’s feelings in either direction.

O’Driscoll’s battered body will be the primary decision maker, of course, but as he begins a Six Nations match for the 60th time in his career, a team effort to lift the spirits this afternoon and put to bed the disappointments of another frustrating championship campaign could be enough to persuade him there is something worth sticking around for into 2014.

Another lacklustre performance like the one in defeat against England on February 10, or the botched effort that saw Ireland waste their total dominance of Scotland a fortnight later might well leave O’Driscoll thinking ‘what’s the point?’ And who would blame him? This will be the great one’s 125th test cap today and a Lions tour surely awaits but wouldn’t it be good to give him something new to appreciate in the green shirt of Ireland?

The way he has mentored rookie inside centre Luke Marshall at the start of his Test career suggests there is still plenty of fight left in O’Driscoll and that the blooding, enforced or otherwise, of bright young things like Marshall, Paddy Jackson, Simon Zebo and Craig Gilroy will have shown him there is strong future for Irish rugby whether he quits this season or next.

That factor should also cheer Ireland supporters as they pick the bones out of yet another campaign that should have delivered so much more. It was only six weeks ago that O’Driscoll, controversially stripped of the captaincy he had held for 83 matches, was inspiring Ireland to an opening-day victory over reigning champions Wales that had us thinking that a second Grand Slam in five seasons was a possibility.

Yet it is the Welsh, unbeaten since, who have the power to stop an English Slam this weekend and perhaps take the title themselves. Ireland, meanwhile, have been torn asunder by an unprecedented injury toll and a fondness for self-destruction that has stymied their title ambitions and brought us two deeply disappointing defeats followed by a frustrating draw with France. There were signs of a rebirth against the French last week but the loss to another injury of Jonny Sexton has tempered hopes of a renaissance in the Eternal City this weekend.

So Jackson gets another chance to impress and evolve a little further into a genuine Test out-half alongside his fellow Ulster young guns Marshall and Gilroy while the likes of O’Driscoll and Rob Kearney will have the added incentive of this being their last big game in which to impress Lions head coach Warren Gatland. That should give plenty of motivation to an Ireland backline that after its three-try onslaught in the first 45 minutes of this Six Nations flattered to deceive.

The Ireland pack also has its work to do, of course, after a scrum that had another bad day against France, recording just a 33% success rate on their own ball. But elsewhere there have been improvements since that remarkable defeat to Scotland. The intensity was back against the French and the penalty count was down, as were the handling errors and poor decision-making which blighted the effort at Murrayfield.

Lessons have been learned and if the improvement continues it should be enough to put a winning bookend on this campaign. Not that the Italians will be lacking motivation. Their passionate supporters drove them on to an opening day win over France and their own fervour and excellent counter-attacking nearly produced a record first win at Twickenham. Back in Rome, the atmosphere will be electric once again as the Azzurri prepare to bid a fond arrivederci to veteran prop Andrea Lo Cicero, retiring after a 104-cap Test career.

Lo Cicero was in tears at the pre-match press conference so one can only imagine the emotions within the Italian dressing room as kick-off approaches and that could play into Irish hands. Too much passion can lead to bad decision-making and ill-discipline that can costs teams valuable points and Ireland need to be cool and clinical if they are to win this game and avoid the horrendous possibility of a wooden spoon.

Ireland are better than that, they just need to start showing us.

Italy v Ireland: How they match-up


Italy: All change in the Italian front row as Andrea Lo Cicero brings vast experience at loosehead in his final Test in place of Alberto de Marchi. Leonardo Cittadini replaces tighthead warhorse Martin Castrogiovanni, injured early against England. Italy were very strong and tenacious on their own put-in in that game, less so without the ball; Ireland will therefore look to dominate their own ball. 3/5

Ireland: Cian Healy returned to the front row to face France but could not improve on the poor outings against England and Scotland as the Irish pack enjoyed just a 33% success rate in the scrums. Early engagements remain a concern and were a frustrating aspect of the French game, when good attacking situations were wasted due to some twitchy reflexes through the entire eight. 3/5


Italy: Joshua Furno and Quintin Geldenhuys endured a torrid time against England, losing a critical throw on an attacking lineout in search of tying the game. Italy won just 78% of ball on their own throw. The main target throughout this Six Nations, though, has been flanker Alessandro Zanni, who has won 15 lineouts, while Sergio Parisse is another viable option. 3/5

Ireland: After a terrible outing against Scotland, Ireland’s lineout against France almost hit the 90% success rate it always targets. There was plenty of variety in the calling from lineout leader Donnacha Ryan and his selection for today in the midst of an ongoing shoulder issue is a boost for the Irish. 3½/5


Italy: Parisse and Alessandro Zanni are world-class breakdown exponents but the team conceded 14 penalties against England, all of whose points were kicked in a narrow 18-11 win, so Italy will need to tighten up in terms of accuracy at ruck time. In front of 70,000-plus home fans and with passion at fever pitch, that may be easier said than done but a high-pitched intensity will be guaranteed. 3/5

Ireland: After poor outings against Scotland, the Irish back row stood up and was counted against the French and as the performances improved the penalty count declined below double digits. There will be another stiff examination in Rome from the Italian back row, though, and the ability to put together back-to-back displays of sufficient intensity. 3/5


Italy: Much depends on the form of fly-half Luciano Orquera today in Rome. He was superb against France, poor in Scotland, dropped for the Wales game and only 50% accurate off the tee against England. Tactically, Italy have improved and are less likely to waste good opportunities with wasteful kicks, while drop goals are less frequent but still part of the arsenal. 2½/5

Ireland: Again, a much improved tactical kicking display against France, and even Paddy Jackson improved from his 1 from 4 place-kicking debut against the Scots to 3 from 5. Scrum-half Conor Murray’s box-kicking, in particular, was impressive but Italy’s counter-attacking success against England should put Irish kickers on their guard today. 3½/5


Italy: No longer totally reliant on a belligerent pack, head coach Jacques Brunel has widened Italy’s play into a 15-man game. Comfortable with ball in hand and staying patient through the phases in search of a try rather than a hurried drop goal attempt. Also showed against England that their back three can be a real handful on the counter. 3/5

Ireland: Not much opportunity for running rugby in the Dublin cold and rain against France as Ireland successfully relied on their rolling maul to get over the line through Jamie Heaslip for their only try of the match. Yet the handling errors were greatly reduced and the decision-making much better from an injury-hit backline that suffered even more casualties in the second half. With a clear, crisp day forecast in Rome, the return from injury of Craig Gilroy to the wing will bring some excitement against a team that has conceded the most tries in the championship this season but was rock solid in defence against England. 3½/5


Italy: 14.5/25

Ireland: 16.5/25


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