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Ireland too far advanced for much Italy worry

Italy are due a Six Nations win soon, so the saying goes.

They ran France close last season, eventually losing 29-24 in Rome on the opening day and they proceeded to give Ireland a good run for their money in round three.

The Azzurri gave Scotland an almighty scare as the championship came to a close.

Down by five points with a scrum on the Scottish line, they couldn’t convert and Scotland killed the game off with a breakaway try.

After beating Wales in 2022, to end a 36-game losing streak, things were looking up but the failure to build on that last year, and a disastrous World Cup, in which they lost 96-17 to New Zealand, had people rightly asking where they were at.

Last weekend’s 27-24 defeat to England might give the impression that the game was closer than it actually was.

England, when it mattered, held their composure and kicked Italy around the place.

“They are so close to getting a few big scalps,” said Ireland’s Jack Conan earlier this week.

“We have to do everything in our power to make sure we are on it because that can’t be us that they do it [against].”

Spoiler alert: It won’t be. Not today anyway.

Ireland, ranked second in the world, are far too advanced to let a game and improving Italy outfit get in the way of their Grand Slam plans.

Ireland outplayed France last weekend

But it won’t be easy. Victory last week over France, and the manner of it, might suggest Ireland could run up a cricket score against lowly Italy but patience is the key.

“I hope they’re being patient in just being quiet and waiting to get going,” said Farrell when asked about high expectations among supporters.

“I hope we can excite them in the way that we can go and play the game. I think our fans are educated enough to understand the difference between a good side and a side that’s not going to be as threatening as Italy are going to be to us.”

As impressive as the 38-17 win in Marseille was, France stunk the place out.

Poor selection, poor discipline and no real sense of urgency all worked in Ireland’s favour. Yes, they took full advantage but behind the scenes Farrell will have highlighted that to his players.

Italy, under new boss Gonzalo Quesada, won’t have that same bad attitude.

Gonzalo Quesada (l) and Italy captain Michele Lamaro

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The visiting head coach has already handed Ireland an unforgettable loss once in his career. You’ll possibly remember the Argentinian kicking 23 of 28 points when the Pumas knocked Ireland out of the 1999 World Cup.

The former Stade Francais boss would love to repeat the trick today but to do so Italy would need to buck a horrendous record in the Six Nations in Dublin where their average losing margin is 29 points.

Only once in 24 attempts have the Azzurri turned Ireland over in the championship and that was back in 2013.

Italy welcome back Ange Capuozzo after missing the England game through illness but two of their most powerful forwards, Lorenzo Cannone and Sebastien Negri, are ruled out through injury.

Alessandro Izekor and Manuel Zuliani come in to start at blindside and openside flanker respectively.

Winger Monty Ioane beat more defenders last week than any player in the championship (6), while Tommaso Menocello was the best performing centre in that department.

Along with Capuozzo those two are the ones to watch.

“Even though I agree they’ve lost some robust players that make the Italian side fierce competitors, I think the people that have come in and the team as a whole is that anyway,” said Farrell.

“There’s a little bit more [pragmatism] and less errors which means that they’re going to be hard to beat, there’s no doubt about that.”

The head coach, however, knows that this game is mostly about Ireland. Play to par and the game is theirs.

They certainly appeared to flush out a lot of the lineout problems that surfaced prior to and during the World Cup against France last weekend and a repeat performance – this time with no Tadhg Beirne – will be welcomed.

The Englishman makes six changes to his starting XV, with Peter O’Mahony, Tadhg Furlong and Bundee Aki all injured, while Jamison Gibson-Park, Josh van der Flier drop to the bench.

In come Craig Casey, Stuart McCloskey, Finlay Bealham, James Ryan, Ryan Baird and Jack Conan.

The promotion of number 8 Conan from the bench sees new captain Caelan Doris (above) move to the openside flank.

Farrell was respectful and diplomatic when asked about the Italians this week but he knows the winning of this game lies in how his own team – looking to extend their record winning run in the Six Nations to ten matches – perform.

He said: “It is about us. It’s about us improving on last week, and the expectation that we’ve got within our own four walls, of an understanding of how we kick on, as you constantly hear me say, in all parts of our game.”

When Ireland have mixed up selection in recent years – against Italy or in World Cup warm-ups – they have never really shot the lights out. More than anything, a cohesive 80-minute performance today will please the man.

Verdict: Ireland by 22

Ireland: Hugo Keenan; Calvin Nash, Robbie Henshaw, Stuart McCloskey, James Lowe; Jack Crowley, Craig Casey; Andrew Porter, Dan Sheehan, Finlay Bealham; Joe McCarthy, James Ryan; Ryan Baird, Caelan Doris (capt), Jack Conan.

Replacements: Rónan Kelleher, Jeremy Loughman, Tom O’Toole, Iain Henderson, Josh van der Flier, Jamison Gibson-Park, Harry Byrne, Jordan Larmour.

Italy: Ange Capuozzo; Lorenzo Pani, Juan Ignacio Brex, Tommaso Menoncello, Monty Ioene; Paolo Garbisi, Stephen Varney; Danilo Fischetti, Gianmarco Lucchesi, Pietro Ceccarelli; Niccolo Cannone, Federico Ruzza; Alessandro Izekor, Manuel Zuliani, Michele Lamaro (capt).

Replacements: Giacomo Nicotera, Mirco Spagnolo, Giosue Zilocchi, Andrea Zambonin, Ross Vintcent, Martin Page-Relo, Tomasso Allan, Federico Mori.

Referee: Luke Pearce (RFU)

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