Simon Lewis breaks down the strengths and weaknesses of both teams.
Italian supporters and head coach Conor O’Shea will have been mightily relieved when the news was delivered that inspirational captain Sergio Parisse had shaken off a neck injury and will be fit to lead Italy today.
Parisse was the most concerning of several injury issues for former Ireland full-back O’Shea that arose from their 33-7 defeat to Wales at the Stadio Olimpico.
Yet the Stade Francais No. 8 was named in the starting XV having received the all clear from medics. There were, though, four changes from the side selected last week. The one change in the backline sees Angelo Esposito replace Giulio Bisegni on the wing with the Irishman keeping faith with half-backs Edoardo Gori and Carlo Canna.
There are changes throughout the pack, however, with Leonardo Ghiraldini promoted from the bench to start at hooker in a switch with Ornel Gega, while Marco Fuser has a new partner in the second row — Dries Van Schalkwyk replaces George Biagi who reverts to the bench.
The back row, from where Parisse will captain his country for the 75th time today, sees Glasgow flanker Simone Favaro reinstated having been rested last week as a precaution.
Favaro replaces Abraham Steyn to join his captain and Zebre flanker Maxime Mbanda.
Staying the course?
Head coach Conor O’Shea believes his Italian side has the wherewithal to be a serious force in the Six Nations within three years but his more pressing concern is whether the Azzurri can last the pace with an Ireland side determined to increase their intensity following a 27-22 defeat to Scotland. O’Shea, who succeeded Jacques Brunel as head coach, saw his side hold a 7-3 half-time lead last week against Wales in Rome and then hang in with the Welsh for an hour until prop Andrea Lovotti’s was sin-binned and Italian resolve was broken with three late tries.
Head coach Joe Schmidt has made two changes to the starting line-up and one to the bench from the matchday squad he selected for the Six Nations opener against Scotland in Edinburgh but he could be forced into another if captain Rory Best fails to recover from a stomach bug.
Munster’s uncapped hooker Niall Scannell, an unused sub at Murrayfield, is primed to make his debut should Best not play with the former Ireland U20 captain’s place on the replacements bench filled by late call-up James Tracy of Leinster, who earned his Test debut last November against Canada.
Donnacha Ryan, a travelling reserve at Murrayfield, comes into the second row to renew his partnership with Devin Toner as Iain Henderson drops out of the squad with a slight hamstring strain, while in the front row, Cian Healy comes in at loosehead prop in a switch with the bench-bound Jack McGrath to start his first Six Nations match since Scotland away in the final round of the 2015 Championship. Healy joins Best and tighthead prop Tadhg Furlong in the front row while the back row combines No. 8 Jamie Heaslip, openside flanker Sean O’Brien and blindside CJ Stander for their fourth Test together as a trio.
The backline is unchanged in the absence of first-choice fly-half Johnny Sexton with Paddy Jackson taking the reins at No. 10 for his third consecutive match alongside scrum-half Conor Murray. Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose are retained in midfield with Rob Kearney at full-back in a back three that will see Munster’s Simon Zebo and Keith Earls on the wings.
Among the replacements, Craig Gilroy replaces fellow Ulsterman Tommy Bowe as cover for the outside backs with Kieran Marimon on scrum-half duty and Ian Keatley on standby for Jackson, both half-backs having been unused at Murrayfield.
The restoration of Donnacha Ryan to the Irish second row acknowledges the shortcomings of the lineout and maul in Scotland. Several lineouts went awry with Ireland in dangerous positions while Scotland stole a march on their rivals with a trick play from an attacking throw, centre Alex Dunbar popping up in the line to score. With Devin Toner forced to take the lion’s share of Best’s throws in the absence of Ryan and no recognised third jumper in the back row with Peter O’Mahony injured, Ireland lacked variety and the ability to keep the opposition guessing. Ryan can remedy that, particularly against an Italian lineout exposed by Wales last weekend.
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