By Brendan Cole
Ireland v Italy, Aviva Stadium, 2.30pm
This will be a great occasion even though in purely sporting terms, it is a disappointment that Brian O’Driscoll will play his final home Test match against a badly weakened team.
Ireland will not concern themselves with whether the visiting selection could be stronger and the opportunity to boost their points- difference ahead of a massive clash with France in Paris is more than welcome.
But in pure sporting terms, the ideal scenario would see Sergio Parisse, arguably the second greatest player to play in the Six Nations since it came into being in 2000, turn up for one final joust against the undisputed greatest.
Parisse is not the only absentee of note with Italy also missing several important backline players.
If Gonzalo Canale, Giovanbattista Venditti and Andrea Masi were slotted in to the starting outside back positions alongside Luke McLean and the exciting newcomer Michele Campagnaro, Italy would present a much greater threat out wide.
At half-back, it would also be a sign of intent if Edoardo Gori and Tommaso Allen had been selected to start this match. Instead, Luciano Orquera and Tito Tebaldi will begin the match in the nine and ten jerseys.
Taken together, it all adds up to mean that it is largely ‘Italy B’ behind the scrum.
Up front, Italy have beefed up by selecting strong, heavy players at loosehead and blindside in the shape of Alberto De Marchi and Josh Furno; a further signal that they will look to make the set piece rather than the open spaces the decisive battleground.
Jacques Brunel appears to have taken note of Ireland’s difficulties against the size and power of the English pack last week and selected accordingly. (Brunel, a veteran of the Top 14 also looks to have read the writing on the wall and decided to commit his best resources to England at home next week).
Ireland, with Peter O’Mahony out, have picked a sizeable ball-carrier of their own at blindside in the shape of Iain Henderson.
But the bigger decisions are tactical. Against England, Ireland opted to go wide instead of trusting their potentially devastating maul, and ended up being foiled in the outside channels on a couple of occasions.
Throughout the competition, in fact, Ireland have not been as effective as an attacking force down the tramlines as they would have hoped, with opportunities created but not quite converted a feature of each match.
With Italy fielding a beefed-up pack and a weak backline that includes two highly inexperienced wingers in Angelo Esposito and Leonardo Sarto, should Ireland challenge Italy head-on or back themselves to land the ‘powerplays’?
On balance, the likelihood is that the special plays will be put away for the week, with the maul and phase attack will be trusted to deliver the goods.
There is, after all, a prime target in the Italian defensive line in the shape of Orquera and if Ireland can get themselves moving forward and take Italy through phases, the cracks will surely start to show. With Nigel Owens on the whistle, they should have far less difficulty creating rhythm in attack than they did under Craig Joubert, who allowed Ireland’s attack to be slowed down against both Scotland and England.
That is not to say that there will be no contest on the ground. Ireland actually leading the way in terms of turnovers won in this year’s Six Nations with 36, and the Italians having the fewest on 17. With the Italian pack on the heavy side and shorn of its best ball-carrier, Chris Henry, Rory Best, Paul O’Connell and Jamie Heaslip may well have extra license to have a bite when the ball goes to ground.
Italy have leaders in the likes of Martin and Marco Bortolami, and will doubtless play with full commitment.
But all told the factors needed for Ireland to rack up a big points-total are in place. Aside from scoring heavily and giving O’Driscoll an appropriate send-off, ideally in the shape of a 27th Six Nations try, a strong outing from Jonathan Sexton and Conor Murray would also be good to see ahead of what is sure to be a searching examination in Paris, notwithstanding the poor form of the French.
Italy’s dismal away record and weakened team means the Six Nations title will almost certainly be on the line. Playing in the last of the three matches, Ireland should have their destiny in their own hands. Victory on that stage in that final match would certainly be a most appropriate finale for Ireland’s greatest player.
Six Nations prediction: Ireland 35-6 Italy
Referee: Nigel Owens
Ireland: 15 Rob Kearney (Leinster), 14 Andrew Trimble (Ulster), 13 Brian O'Driscoll (Leinster), 12 Gordon D'Arcy (Leinster), 11 Dave Kearney (Leinster), 10 Jonathan Sexton (Racing Metro), 9 Conor Murray (Munster), 1 Cian Healy (Leinster), 2 Rory Best (Ulster), 3 Mike Ross (Leinster), 4 Devin Toner (Leinster), 5 Paul O'Connell (Munster), 6 Iain Henderson (Ulster), 7 Chris Henry (Ulster), 8 Jamie Heaslip (Leinster).
Replacements: 16 Sean Cronin (Leinster), 17 Jack McGrath (Leinster), 18 Martin Moore (Leinster), 19 Rhys Ruddock, 20 Jordi Murphy (Leinster), 21 Eoin Reddan (Leinster), 22 Paddy Jackson (Ulster), 23 Fergus McFadden (Leinster).
Italy: 15 Luke McLean, 14 Angelo Esposito, 13 Michele Campagnaro, 12 Gonzalo Garcia, 11 Leonardo Sarto, 10 Luciano Orquera, 9 Tito Tebaldi, 1 Alberto De Marchi, 2 Leonardo Ghiraldini, 3 Martin Castrogiovanni, 4 Quintin Geldenhuys, 5 Marco Bortolami, 6 Joshua Furno, 7 Paul Derbyshire, 8 Robert Barbieri.
Replacements: 16 Davide Giazzon, 17 Michele Rizzo, 18 Lorenzo Cittadini, 19 Antonio Pavanello, 20 Manoa Vosawai, 21 Edoardo Gori, 22 Tommaso Allan, 23 Andrea Masi.