"We'll see. That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it," grinned Andy Farrell, as he finished Thursday’s press conference near Dublin airport.
The Ireland head coach had been asked a question, which by the look on his face, he'd probably been expecting.
Since his Ireland side clicked into gear in the latter half of 2021 they’ve answered almost every question thrown at them:
How do they find a way around the physicality of South Africa and France? Tick...
Can they replicate their impressive home form on the road? Tick...
Do Ireland’s players have the skills to play fast, attacking rugby? Tick...
It’s been said in recent seasons – even by Farrell’s own players – that when Johnny Sexton isn’t around, their standards both in games and in training have slipped.
And it was put to Farrell that Saturday’s Round 3 Guinness Six Nations meeting with Italy in Rome will be a litmus test of whether or not that issue has been addressed.
Sexton hasn’t been entirely absent this week, remaining in camp to deal with his groin injury, which is expected to be all clear for the trip to Murrayfield on 12 March.
While it’s still a strong Ireland line-up, and one that’s expected to make it three wins from three against Italy, it will be a good window into how well they function and adapt when some of the key leaders have been lost.
As well as Sexton, Ireland are already without Tadhg Furlong, Robbie Henshaw, Jamison Gibson-Park and Tadhg Beirne, while the decision to keep someone of Peter O’Mahony’s experience on the bench indicates Farrell has faith in his wider squad to lead themselves.
The Ireland coach has rarely been one to make changes for the sake of rotation, and it’s a bold call to match Ross Byrne and Craig Casey together as a starting half-back combination, with both players starting a Six Nations game for the first time.
For Casey it’s just a second Test start, and a major step up from his previous experience in the 9 shirt for Ireland, a trouncing of USA at the Aviva Stadium in the summer of 2021.
However, his inclusion from the start in Rome this week is more than justified based off his form for both province and country this season, with the Shannon man having started ahead of Conor Murray for Munster in the major games this season, while he’s added to Ireland’s performances off the bench, alongside Byrne, in the opening rounds of the Six Nations.
Unlike Casey, Byrne has been thrown into unforgiving situations in his two previous starts for Ireland, and they’ve arguably played a major role in why he’s been so far down the Irish pecking order in recent seasons.
His first start came against England in August 2019, when Ireland arrived at Twickenham off the back of a grueling World Cup training camp in Portugal, and with legs already like jelly, they fell apart in a humiliating 57-15 defeat on a sweltering afternoon in London.
It was a day that probably cost Byrne a place at the World Cup, but in the time that’s passed, and the players since giving their version of how hard they were run at that Portugal training camp, it’s clear the Leinster out-half had been on a hiding to nothing that afternoon.
Just over a year later he was back at Twickenham for another start, and while the scoreline was far tighter, 18-7 in England’s favour, Byrne was part of an Irish side still figuring out who they were under Farrell.
It helps that around the Casey-Byrne partnership, Ireland are working with settled combinations. Jack Conan returns to the back row alongside Caelan Doris and Josh van der Flier, while the out-half has the physical presence of Stuart McCloskey, a late replacement for Garry Ringrose, just over his shoulder.
As well as Ireland having to find that same physical and emotional pitch without Sexton, they also have to ensure they don’t lose any of their continuity and momentum with so many changes.
In November, a number of sore bodies after the win against South Africa forced Farrell into making nine changes to his side the following week against Fiji, and while it was never a game Ireland looked like losing, it was an underwhelming and scrappy performance.
There aren’t as many changes this week, but seven is still a significant turnover – three enforced, four tactical – and combined with last week’s empty weekend, maintaining that level of performance will be a challenge against an Italian side who have developed a fearless streak in the last 12 months.
Kieran Crowley’s side may have lost both games so far in the championship, but look considerably better, and certainly more dangerous in attack than they did this time last season.
In Ange Capuozzo they have the World Rugby Breakthrough Player of the Year, a baby-faced 23-year-old who glides around the pitch with a swagger that’s in stark contrast to the Azzurri’s recent Six Nations record.
In the past, it was easy to plámás the Italians for the physicality of Sergio Parisse, or the old-school scrummaging of Martin Castrogiovanni, but more recently they’re producing exciting, skillful ball-players.
As well as Capuozzo, Tommaso Menoncello looks a brilliant prospect at 20-years-old, while the returning Paolo Garbisi brings a winning culture back into the side, the Montpellier out-half having missed the opening rounds due to injury.
In the pack, Danilo Fischetti is proving himself to be a top-quality loosehead, while captain Michele Lamaro, the son of an Olympic sailor, is good enough to grace most back rows in the championship.
ITALY v IRELAND: ALL YOU NEED TO KNOW
As dangerous as they have been in attack, and as daring as they’ve been when France and England continued to come at them, their biggest issue in the opening Rounds has been their control, or lack thereof.
In the opening half against France, their exit strategy and composure in their own 22 continued to put them under pressure, and while Garbisi’s return should go some way to addressing it, scrum-half Stephen Varney has struggled to gain any real control on the game, which Ireland should be able to exploit.
Even with an inexperienced half-back combination, there appears to be far too much quality, and in particular far too much in-form quality in the Ireland team to see a repeat of 10 years ago, where Ireland suffered their first and only Six Nations loss against the Azzurri.
Even accounting for major injuries, Ireland are showing they have depth at almost every position.
Furlong's absence has hardly been felt, with Finlay Bealham playing the best rugby of his career at tighthead. Beirne is naturally a big loss, but Iain Henderson brings more than 60 caps of experience to the second row, and was excellent off the bench against France a fortnight ago.
Even for those coming off the bench, the standard has been set in the opening two games that they are there to improve the team, rather than just see out a win.
The wins against both Wales and France have been marked by the impact of almost every substitute, and with Ireland's 16-23 boasting the likes of Dan Sheehan, Ryan Baird, O'Mahony, Murray and Stuart McCloskey, it's brings a reassurance that even if Ireland's starters are off the pace in Rome, the can find extra gears off the bench to keep the Grand Slam bandwagon rolling all the way to Edinburgh.
Italy: Ange Capuozzo; Edoardo Padovani, Juan Ignacio Brex, Tommaso Menoncello, Pierre Bruno; Paolo Garbisi, Stephen Varney; Danilo Fischetti, Giacomo Nicotera, Simone Ferrari; Niccolò Cannone, Federico Ruzza; Sebastian Negri, Michele Lamaro, Lorenzo Cannone.
Replacements: Luca Bigi, Federico Zani, Marco Riccioni, Edoardo Iachizzi, Giovanni Pettinelli, Alessandro Fusco, Luca Morisi, Tommaso Allan.
Ireland: Hugo Keenan; James Lowe, Bundee Aki, Stuart McCloskey, Mack Hansen; Ross Byrne, Craig Casey; Andrew Porter, Ronan Kelleher, Finlay Bealham; Iain Henderson, James Ryan (capt); Caelan Doris, Josh van der Flier, Jack Conan.
Replacements: Dan Sheehan, Dave Kilcoyne, Tom O'Toole, Ryan Baird, Peter O'Mahony, Conor Murray, Jack Crowley, Jimmy O'Brien.
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Watch live coverage of Italy v Ireland (Saturday 2.15pm) on RTÉ2 and RTÉ Player, follow our live blog on RTÉ.ie/Sport and the RTÉ News app, or listen to live commentary on RTÉ Radio 1.
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