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Champions Ireland heads to Rome on Sunday, looking to build momentum in their stuttering Six Nations title defence.
They require a big win over underdogs Italy, who have been hit by the absence of captain Sergio Parisse.
Italy’s task was already difficult before skipper Parisse suffered a concussion while playing for his club Stade Francais last Saturday.
For Italy coach Conor O’Shea, a former Ireland fullback, it now looks like mission impossible against his home country ranked second in the world behind New Zealand.
He is talismanic for them,” said Ireland coach Joe Schmidt of Parisse.
It will affect them no doubt because of the standing and respect he has.
Italy has not won a Six Nations game in four years with defeats against Scotland (33-20) and Wales (26-15) this campaign bringing that tally up to 19 consecutive games.
Ireland – the 2018 Grand Slam winners – is fourth in the Six Nations table having beaten Scotland (22-13) in their last match after losing their opener to England (32-20).
A big win over the Italians would give Schmidt’s side a boost before hosting France in Dublin on March 10, with their finale against Wales in Cardiff the following week.
Despite the calibre of the opposition Schmidt has made just four changes – all in the pack – leaving the backs unchanged with first-choice halfback pair Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton.
I thought [Braam] Steyn was absolutely outstanding in that last game,” said Schmidt of the South African-born flank who moves into Parisse’s position at No.8.
Their back row power is going to challenge us physically,” said Schmidt.
It does still make for a very competitive back row when you bring in [Maxime] Mbanda and [Jimmy] Tuivaiti.
The likes of [Michele] Campagnaro, [Edoardo] Padovani and [Angelo] Esposito, those guys will be a great challenge for us.”
Hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini, capped 101 times, takes the Azzurri captain’s armband for the 17th time.
Ghiraldini, 34, is the only remaining member of the side that achieved Italy’s last Six Nations success at home, against Ireland in March 2013.
It was Italy’s only win against the Irish in 19 games in the championship since joining in 2000.
Peter O’Mahony will captain Ireland with regular skipper Rory Best rested with Leinster’s two-time Champions Cup-winning stalwart Sean Cronin taking his place at hooker.
Although he has been capped 67 times by Ireland, 58 of Cronin’s appearances have come off the bench – a record for any Ireland replacement.
And Schmidt expects Cronin, making his 10th Test start, will be looking to oust Best.
I’m sure that’s his intention,” said Schmidt.
As much he’s very team-oriented, he will personally want to put his best foot forward.
It’s a great opportunity for Sean and I’m hopeful he’ll grab it with both hands.
He’ll have the confidence from the 10 starts he has had in different fixtures, but the number of times he’s come off the bench and been involved in really important wins for us, I think, why not bring that from the start.
Braam Steyn, moving from flank and No.8, has a massive task in the absence of regular skipper Sergio Parisse – who suffered a concussion while playing for his club Stade Francais last Saturday. In the backline, they will look at the experience of Michele Campagnaro in the midfield and Tommaso Allan at flyhalf. But most of all the service of scrumhalf Tito Tebaldi will be key.
Coach Joe Schmidt showed the Italians plenty of respect, sending his first-choice backline into battle – including the halfback pair Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton. South African-born Quinn Roux has a vital role to play at lock, where he will partner Ultan Dillane in the second row.
Any hope Italy has of causing an upset means Tommaso Allan has to upstage Irish talisman Jonathan Sexton at flyhalf. The physicality of two South African imports will be key – Braam Steyn (Italy) versus Jordi Murphy (Italy) at No.8 and Dean Budd (Italy) against Quinn Roux (Ireland) at lock.
Italy has beaten Ireland just once in the last 20 years in Rome in 2013. Recent results suggest Ireland should cruise to victory – we say by 15 points or more.
Italy: 15 Jayden Hayward, 14 Edoardo Padovani, 13 Michele Campagnaro, 12 Luca Morisi, 11 Angelo Esposito, 10 Tommaso Allan, 9 Tito Tebaldi, 8 Braam Steyn, 7 Maxime Mbanda, 6 Jimmy Tuivaiti, 5 Dean Budd, 4 Federico Ruzza, 3 Simone Ferrari, 2 Leonardo Ghiraldini (captain), 1 Andrea Lovotti.
Replacements: 16 Luca Bigi, 17 Cherif Traore, 18 Tiziano Pasquali, 19 David Sisi, 20 Alessandro Zanni, 21 Guglielmo Palazzani, 22 Ian McKinley, 23 Tommaso Castello.
Ireland: 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Keith Earls, 13 Chris Farrell, 12 Bundee Aki, 11 Jacob Stockdale, 10 Jonathan Sexton, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Jordi Murphy, 7 Sean O’Brien, 6 Peter O’Mahony (captain), 5 Quinn Roux, 4 Ultan Dillane, 3 Tadhg Furlong, 2 Sean Cronin, 1 Dave Kilcoyne.
Replacements: 16 Niall Scannell, 17 Jack McGrath, 18 John Ryan, 19 Iain Henderson, 20 Josh van der Flier, 21 John Cooney, 22 Jack Carty, 23 Andrew Conway.