It's a knock-out
September 30, 2011
Sergio Parisse will hope to lead Italy into the knockout stages of the World Cup © Getty Images
It's knock-out rugby as Ireland face Six Nations rivals Italy in Dunedin on Sunday with safe passsage through to the quarter finals awaiting the winners and plane tickets home left for the losers.
Ireland have won three from three so far in Pool C, including the victory of the tournament so far over Australia. But with the Wallabies likely to rack-up the points against Russia, defeat would almost certainly see Ireland eliminated from the tournament. Even a losing bonus point would not be enough for the Irish as it would leave them level on points with Italy, with the result of their head to head defining their fate.
Four years ago Ireland endured the agony and humiliation of leaving the party early. And they will be determined to avoid that ignomy this time around, especially as their victory over Australia has opened a potentially more manageable path to the final.
However Italy will prove a challenging first hurdle. Italy coach Nick Mallett has already set down the gauntlet by stating that his Italy front-row are a stronger scrummaging unit than the Irish who destroyed Tri-Nation champions Australia earlier in the pool stages.
Ireland - Player to Watch: Huge responsibility will fall on the young shoulders of Conor Murray at scrum-half for Ireland. His decision making at the base of the ruck and around the fringes will go along way to dictating the tempo and direction of Ireland's game. It is vital he evades the clutches of the big Italian back-row.
Ireland - Team News: Declan Kidney has made some big selection calls with Ronan O'Gara and Murray lining up at half-backs ahead of Jonathan Sexton and Eoin Reddan. Captain Brian O'Driscoll returns at outside centre and his inclusion sees Keith Earls switch back out to the left wing. Hooker Rory Best and tight-head Mike Ross are recalled to the front-row, Leo Cullen makes way for Paul O'Connell in the second-row and Stephen Ferris takes over from Donnacha Ryan at blindside flanker.
Italy - Player to Watch: In terms of one players' influence on their team, Italy captain Sergio Parisse is up their with the most significant. He is Italy's inspirational leader, greatest attacking threat and defensive lynchpin alll in one.
Italy - Team News: Mallett makes just one change from the side that beat the US Eagles with the fit-again Andrea Masi recalled at fullback.
Key Battle: The battle of the back-rows will be a ferociously physical and potentially defining element of this winner takes all clash. Both side poses players with huge bulk and ball-carrying power but also fine footballing skills and tactical sense. The fight for the inches around the fringes and in the tackle area will be crucial.
Stats: O'Gara has a 61.40% win ratio from his 114 internationals compared to rival Jonathan Sexton's 50% from 22
Trivia: Ireland have not lost to Italy for 14 years
"If we win, we progress. If we lose we go home. It's massive pressure, but that's what we're here for. Before this tournament we'd have given anything to be in this position."
"I don't really have to talk to the players about this game. Our whole objective has been to get to this point to give ourselves the best chance when we play Ireland. Over these five days motivating is the last thing they need."
Prediction: Ireland to sneak into the last eight following a tight contest in Dunedin. The kicking accuracy of Ronan O'Gara and Jonathan Sexton to prove vital as the ubiquitous Italian back-row disrupts and frustrates the Irish attack
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
As Scotland decides its future, Scrum Sevens looks at a group of players who transcended rugby both for country and the British & Irish Lions
Ahead of November's USA-All Blacks match, America's ESPN Magazine explains rugby to its readers who may not be familiar with the game
Tom Hamilton talks to World Cup-winning captain John Smit about life after rugby, his fears over the South African exodus and the World Cup