Preview: Tries on the menu as Italy come to town
Last Saturday’s narrow victory in Paris was way too close for comfort but Ireland can use the manner of the 15-13 win to build up momentum on their Championship trail.
So close were Joe Schmidt’s men to starting off their NatWest Six Nations campaign with a sickening defeat that an overwhelming sense of relief must still linger somewhere in their minds.
But the players presented to the media this week have been 'on message' ahead of this afternoon's 2.15pm kick-off.
"We can't be hanging around dwelling on what happened," said Peter O’Mahony. "We've got to turn the page."
His fellow back rower Jack Conan, who will make his Six Nations debut, agreed: "You can’t dwell on France too long... we’re turning the page over to Italy."
The visit of the Azzurri, as much as you’re not supposed to say it, comes at the right time.
The general performance against France, which threw up a lot of questions, and the finish to the game should provide the team with something to prove as well as an extra buzz going into the game, for which Ireland are 1/100 favourites with one bookmaker.
Conor O’Shea, in his second year in charge of the underdogs, is not shy about pointing out that his side is a work in progress, a project with the goal of making Italian rugby stronger in the long term.
"This team is learning that every moment counts, while learning that we need to keep raising our level of play," said the 35-times capped former Ireland full-back.
"We know we will have to tackle a lot over the 80 minutes. But I can guarantee you that Italy will spend every drop of energy to try to continue on this path."
But it’s slow progress and had Wales been next on Ireland's list, it would have provided a nervier examination for a team that had certain limitations exposed against France, the kind of weaknesses that Warren Gatland loves to exploit.
As it stands, the fixture list provides Schmidt the opportunity to rest Cian Healy, James Ryan (nursing a groin problem), and CJ Stander, who all put in energy-sapping shifts at the Stade de France, while comfortable in the knowledge that Jack McGrath, Devin Toner and Jack Conan will fill in without weakening the team to any great extent.
Dan Leavy, who replaced the injured Josh van der Flier last week, is the fourth change to the starting line-up, the flanker taking his Leinster team-mate’s place.
The Italians, who have never won a Six Nations game in Dublin, are particularly poor defensively from line-out play so Toner's return also provides a solid and proven platform for attack.
There was talk that the New Zealander might have selected the action-starved Joey Carbery at out-half, and given Jordan Larmour the 15 shirt, but starting with Sexton and Rob Kearney in an unchanged back line is more in keeping with the coach's style.
"Sometimes it takes a lot to break a team down," said Schmidt at Thursday’s press conference, knowing full well that the Italians need to be subdued, and building up a lead before sending on the new boys is the sensible approach.
The margin of victory from Ireland’s last two meetings with the visitors is 53 points (2017) and 43 points (2016), with nine tries coming in both games.
Italy missed 26 tackles in a 46-15 seven-try defeat to England last week but did manage to score two tries through Tommaso Benvenuti and Mattia Bellini, both times crossing the whitewash after firing the ball wide, with some fine but slightly risky passes thrown along the way.
The Irish backs with a nose for an interception will have noted that.
Up front Sergio Parisse, columnist Fiona Steed's one-to-watch, is ploughing a lone furrow, the Italy captain continues to excel but is limited in what he can achieve by the lack of quality around him.
Meanwhile, former Leinster man Ian McKinley fails to make the 23, with O’Shea making the call to retain both starting out-half Tommaso Allan and back-up Carlo Canna.
"Ian's a rugby player, he's not a romantic story," said the ex-Harlequins boss, who has made three changes for the Aviva clash, with Braam Steyn at openside, Luca Bigi at hooker and Nicola Quaglio at loosehead prop coming in.
Renato Giammarioli, Leonardo Ghiraldini and Andrea Lovotti are the players to make way.
After getting the fright of their lives in Paris, it’s correct and right that Ireland set about the Italian job in a clinical fashion.
So as good as Larmour has been with Leinster, the decision not to start the uncapped starlet is understandable.
Schmidt probably feels that it would have placed too much attention / pressure on him and it's unnecessary to take that risk.
Ireland can focus on putting the game to bed early and introducing the 20-year-old when the Italians are tiring.
"I expect Jordan to provide what he has been doing at provincial games," said the coach, whose starting XV contains 620 caps versus 393 on the Italian side.
"Away from the ball he has a super work-rate. We know if we are under pressure, he can bring that work-rate.
"There's never a perfect situation [to bring him in]. You don't place a player and expect him to be looked after. Hopefully he brings the exciting parts of his game."
Normally it’s an anathema to Schmidt to admit he’s targeting anything other than a win but he knows that Ireland can’t afford to leave the Aviva with anything less than five match-points and, as loath as he is to admit it, tries, of which there were none against France, are on the menu.
"Our intention is to keep scoring points," he said.
"I think we have added some guys who can potentially help us do that," referencing Conan, who has four tries from his five caps to date.
"You have got to keep scoring, keep driving yourself forward, because this competition, maybe not in the last two years but the two years previous to that, came down to very fine margins."
It will be a surprise if Schmidt doesn't get the extra point for tries scored but the real bonus will be an injury-free afternoon, and a good run-out for Joey Carbery, the replacement out-half, and Larmour, the next big thing.
Ireland: Rob Kearney; Keith Earls, Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki, Jacob Stockdale; Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray; Jack McGrath, Rory Best (capt), Tadhg Furlong; Iain Henderson, Devin Toner; Peter O’Mahony, Dan Leavy, Jack Conan.
Replacements: Cian Healy, Sean Cronin, Andrew Porter, Quinn Roux, CJ Stander, Kieran Marmion, Joey Carbery, Jordan Larmour.
Italy: Matteo Minozzi; Tommaso Benvenuti, Tommaso Boni, Tommaso Castello, Mattia Bellini; Tommaso Allan, Marcello Violi; Nicola Quaglio, Luca Bigi, Simone Ferrari, Alessandro Zanni, Dean Budd, Sebastien Negri, Braam Steyn, Sergio Parisse (capt).
Replacements: Leonardo Ghiraldini, Andrea Lovotti, Tiziano Pasquali, Federico Ruzza, Maxime Mata Mbanda, Edoardo Gori, Carlo Canna, Jayden Hayward.
Referee: Romain Poite (Fra)
Follow our live blog of Ireland v Italy (2.15pm kick-off) on RTÉ Online and the RTÉ News Now App, or listen to commentary from Michael Corcoran and Donal Lenihan on RTÉ Radio 1's Saturday Sport.