Ireland will seek to end a two-game losing streak when they face Italy on Saturday (kick-off 14.15 GMT); The Azzurri will be hoping to build on their competitive display in the defeat to England
Last Updated: 27/02/21 8:40 am
Ireland face Italy on Saturday trying to recover from their worst start to the Six Nations campaign.
Andy Farrell’s side have suffered losing streaks to Wales and France, while the hosts are also looking for their first win of the tournament.
Here, we look at some of the main talking points ahead of the game in Rome.
A game that must be won
Ireland’s third-place Six Nations 2020 is considered an “average return” by the Irish Football Union’s Rugby Football Association performance director David Nucifora. Consecutive defeats meant that replicating those moderate achievements was a difficult task.
Ireland are scintillating favorites to win at the Stadio Olimpico and only a convincing win coupled with an accomplished display will likely prevent further scrutiny of progress under Farrell. The head coach has repeatedly expressed satisfaction with what he sees on camera and insists that the pressure makes him “feel alive.” Given the recent results and the level of opposition, first away success from his short term is a must.
This is Johnny
The debate over whether veteran captain Johnny Sexton will be available for the next World Cup is almost certain to continue in the foreseeable future. The 35-year-old said this week that he “might not” be there for the 2023 tournament but later clarified that it was a “throwaway comment” and stressed that he will assess his future year after year.
With fly-half deputies Billy Burns and Ross Byrne unsure each of them will be a long-term successor and Joey Carbery seeking to return from injury, there is little doubt Sexton will remain at the helm of his country’s number 10 for now. He will return from a head injury to win his 97th cap this weekend and will have to prove a steady influence after several difficult weeks.
After a narrow 15-13 defeat to Les Bleus, Farrel spoke of the need for a more creative spark from his back. Ireland have scored two low-key attempts of the tournament to date and both have come from the front – Tadhg Beirne and Ronan Kelleher.
Failure to break stubborn defenses is a common concern. With the backs of Sexton and Jordan Larmour giving up his first starts on the wing since before the 2019 World Cup, Farrell has appointed a back line made up entirely of Leinster players. He will hope that intimacy can lead to a greater spearhead, while facing the weakest side of the competition should provide the perfect stage to escape.
Shuffle the package
While Farrel demands greater ingenuity from his more technically gifted players, his raft of changes takes place mostly between the pack, including a complete front-line overhaul. Only key Iain Henderson and number eight CJ Stander defended their positions from the French game.
Tadhg Furlong’s tight head brace started for his country for the first time in more than a year, with Kelleher getting his chance as a prostitute after a cameo trying to score against France, and Dave Kilcoyne making a rare start to off.
Vice-captain James Ryan returned from a head injury to strengthen the second row, pushing Beirne back into the blind flanker, while Will Connors came in on the open flank.
Italy’s Six Nations losing streak – which lasted six years – is in danger of being extended to 30 games this weekend. The Azzurri head coach, Franco Smith, called a team unchanged after competing fiercely in the defeat to reigning champions England last time, but their poor run still ruined the championship.
While there have been calls for the introduction of promotion and relegation into the tournament via play-off play, Farrell feels Italy deserves to retain their place, demonstrating the progress made under South Africa’s Smith. There are many who disagree.
Italy: 15 Jacopo Trulla, 14 Luca Sperandio, 13 Juan Ignacio Brex, 12 Carlo Canna, 11 Montanna Ioane, 10 Paolo Garbisi, 9 Stephen Varney, 1 Andrea Lovotti, 2 Luca Bigi (c), 3 Marco Riccioni, 4 Marco Lazzaroni, 5 David Sisi, 6 Sebastian Negri, 7 Johan Meyer, 8 Michele Lamaro
Replacement: 16 Gianmarco Lucchesi, 17 Cherif Traore, 18 Giosuè Zilocchi, 19 Niccolò Cannone, 20 Maxime Mbanda, 21 Callum Braley, 22 Federico Mori, 23 Mattia Bellini
Ireland: 15 Hugo Keenan, 14 Jordan Larmour, 13 Garry Ringrose, 12 Robbie Henshaw, 11 James Lowe, 10 Jonathan Sexton (c), 9 Jamison Gibson Parks, 1 Dave Kilcoyne, 2 Ronan Kelleher, 3 Tadhg Furlong, 4 Iain Henderson, 5 James Ryan, 6 Tadhg Beirne, 7 Will Connors, 8 CJ Stander
Replacement: 16 Rob Herring, 17 Cian Healy, 18 Andrew Porter, 19 Ryan Baird, 20 Jack Conan, 21 Craig Casey, 22 Billy Burns, 23 Keith Earls