Ireland favourites for away day triumph
February 13, 2009
Will Ireland have further call to celebrate in Rome this weekend? © Getty Images
Declan Kidney Mauro Bergamasco Mirco Bergamasco Jamie Heaslip Nick Mallett Brian O'Driscoll Ronan O'Gara
Ireland will travel to Italy for their latest Six Nations clash on Sunday full of confidence following their historic opening victory over France.
The Irish ended a run of seven defeats against Les Bleus with a thrilling 30-21 victory in Dublin last weekend and will be confident of maintaining their title challenge at the Flaminio Stadium. In contrast, Italy suffered a nightmare start to their campaign against England at Twickenham - leaking five tries in an error-ridden performance that will forever be remembered for Mauro Bergamasco's ill-fated cameo at scrum-half.
Ireland stole the show in the opening round of Championship action with an impressive display of running rugby to see off an equally attack-minded France side. The much-touted Irish backline hit their straps on more than one occasion in a crowd-pleasing display highlighted by moments of brilliance from skipper Brian O'Driscoll and No.8 Jamie Heaslip. Their ability to break from deep, having weathered the best France could muster, would not have been lost on their Six Nations rivals and the intrinsic value of the Munster forwards who provide the bedrock for so much that Ireland do was once again underlined.
Ireland are unlikely to be stretched to the same degree by Italy this weekend and at the same time are unlikely to see as much of the ball. O'Driscoll and co will do well to expect a backlash from an Italian side sure to have been stung by recent criticism. The horror show that was the first half at Twickenham is best forgotten with their recovery post-Bergamasco providing plenty of positives on which to build. In deed, had coach Nick Mallett originally handed the No.9 jersey to specialist Giulio Toniolatti then the result at Twickenham could have been quite different. In fact Mallett may have learnt some valuable lessons in the wake of that defeat - and not only that he should play a scrum-half at scrum-half.
If Italy were looking for further impetus ahead of the game they need look no further than the home crowd at the Flaminio Stadium. The Azzurri so often find an extra dimension in Rome and will require that and some if they are to end a 12-match losing streak against the Irish. They ran Ireland close in Dublin last year but leaked eight tries when they played host to Eddie O'Sullivan's side in 2007. The odds remain stacked against the hosts but Ireland will face a stiff test of their credentials.
Unsurprisingly Ireland coach Declan Kidney has kept faith with the side that made a winning start to the Championship after Ulster centre Paddy Wallace and Munster hooker Jerry Flannery shook off injury worries. O'Driscoll will once again lead the side in his 90th appearance for his country but prop John Hayes goes one better to equal Malcolm O'Kelly's all-time record who may well extend his own mark if he enters the fray from the bench.
Fullback Rob Kearney produced another notable performance against France and will once again feature in a formidable back-three alongside wingers Tommy Bowe and Luke Fitzgerald. Fly-half Ronan O'Gara was at his best orchestrating the Irish attack at Croke Park and will be hoping to extend his rich vein of form, and fruitful half-back partnership with provincial team mate Tomas O'Leary, in Rome. Despite a try-scoring return to the international stage last weekend, centre Gordon D'Arcy must make do with a place on a talented bench.
Thankfully Mallet has returned Bergamasco to openside flanker for his country's second outing in this year's Championship and do not be surprised if he produces a man of the match display. Bergamasco strikes you as proud man who relishes every opportunity he has to pull on his country's colours and as a result the last week would have brought with it some pain. As a result expect Bergamasco to wage a one-man war on Ireland on Sunday in a bid to write his name into the headlines for all the right reasons.
In backrow colleague and captain Sergio Parisse he will find a willing and able co-hort in what is sure to be a brutal battle at the breakdown. Scrum-half Paul Griffen was called into squad following a 16-month absence in the wake of the England debacle and was drafted straight into the line-up while Luke McLean starts at fly-half after an impressive showing from the bench last weekend. However the selection of Griffen as, "the best choice we have in the current circumstances" does not offer the greatest confidence.
This cross-Tasman partnership (McLean was born in Australia while Griffen is a New Zealander) only emphasises Mallett's problem in these key positions but he cannot be criticised for utilising the resources available to him. The lack of quality home-grown talent available to him is a bigger fight for another day - right now he is in the results business. Bergamasco's brother, Mirco, also switches positions into the centres to partner Gonzalo Canale while Matteo Pratichetti, another to impress as a replacement last weekend, takes his place out wide.
Mallett was quick to accept the blame for the Bergamasco experiment but will have had a job on his hands to raise morale ahead of what will be the first of three Championship fixtures in Rome this year. Ireland represent a step up in class for Italy and Mallett has stated that nothing but a 'perfect' game will bring his side reward but he insists the desire is there to give the fans an afternoon to remember for all the right reasons.
However, on current form an Italy success is as likely as a certain Bergamasco feeding a scrum at anytime in the near future. Ireland could well have embarked on a long-awaited Championship-winning season last weekend and their opponents this weekend will be hard-pressed to stop those claims gathering momentum.
Italy: Andrea Masi (Biarritz Olympique), Kaine Robertson (Viadana), Gonzalo Canale (Clermont-Auvergne), Mirco Bergamasco (Stade Francais), Matteo Pratichetti (Calvisano), Luke McLean (Calvisano), Paul Griffen (Calvisano), Sergio Parisse (Stade Francais, capt), Mauro Bergamasco (Stade Francais), Alessandro Zanni (Calvisano), Tommaso Reato (Rovigo), Santiago Dellape' (Toulon), Martin Castrogiovanni (Leicester Tigers), Fabio Ongaro (Saracens), Salvatore Perugini (Stade Toulousain)
Replacements: Carlo Festuccia (Racing Metro Paris), Carlos Nieto (Gloucester), Carlo Antonio Del Fava (Ulster), Josh Sole (Viadana), Giulio Toniolatti (Capitolina), Gonzalo Garcia (Cammi Calvisano), Andrea Bacchetti (Rovigo)
Ireland: Rob Kearney (Leinster); Tommy Bowe (Ospreys), Brian O'Driscoll (Leinster, captain), Paddy Wallace (Ulster), Luke Fitzgerald (Leinster); Ronan O'Gara (Munster), Tomas O'Leary (Munster); Marcus Horan (Munster), Jerry Flannery (Munster), John Hayes (Munster), Donncha O'Callaghan (Munster), Paul O'Connell (Munster), Shaun Ferris (Ulster), David Wallace (Munster), Jamie Heaslip (Leinster).
Replacements: Rory Best (Ulster), T Court (Ulster), Malcolm O'Kelly (Leinster), Denis Leamy (Munster), Peter Stringer (Munster), Gordon D'Arcy (Leinster), Geordan Murphy (Leicester).
Referee: Chris White (England)
Assistant Referees: Nigel Owens (Wales), Romain Poite (France)
Firdose Moonda talks to Rob Louw about the difficulties of being a South African touring New Zealand at the height of Apartheid
Huw Richards profiles French forward Walter Spanghero, a man who even rugby's hard men thought was a tough nut
"To be part of the Commonwealth Games, I'd wear anything. I'd wear a clown suit." Tom Hamilton talks to Scotland's Sean Lamont
Scrum Sevens looks back at how rugby has fared in both the early Olympics and the past four Commonwealth Games