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Italians have a job on their hands at Croke Park

It’s a seldom publicised desire but a potent fact, nevertheless. Italy’s rugby men begin their second decade in the Six Nations Championship this weekend, against Ireland in Dublin, determined to bury their image of the tournament’s pushovers.

Australian-born full-back Luke McLean says there is a growing urge to end what he calls their “easy beats” reputation.

“We are faced by a big job,” says the Benetton Treviso player. “But we are still enjoying it. The fact that we have had the same group of players together for a year or more now is a definite advantage, a real step forward.

“We are looking forward to putting together some good performances. We are trying not to be the easy beats now, we don’t want that reputation any more.”

McLean, who will be 23 this year, qualifies through his mother’s parents who were both Italian, although his mother’s father had to renounce his Italian citizenship so as to buy land in Australia. McLean, born in Australia, was eligible for both countries, the latter through his Italian grandmother.

He chose Italy and is one of the most accomplished players in the Italian side. Yet the Azzurri has suffered a run of just one win in their last 15 games, with a November victory over Samoa their sole success of 2009.

“We conceded a few too many tries last year in the Six Nations but as the group has spent more time together, we have got closer to where we want to be,” he said.

Perhaps so. But great courage will be required of the Italians at Croke Park on Saturday.

To his credit, McLean does not seek to diminish that fact.

“This will be a big test for us. People in Italy want to be enthusiastic about our rugby and the future but if we keep on losing that will be harder.

“We are under pressure to make sure we win for the benefit of Italian rugby’s future. We feel we have to give something back to the public.

“Ireland are such a good side because they all play together. They do the simple things right and don’t make mistakes. They don’t let you into the game much, either. But you have to try and match them,” he says.

“The trouble was last year against them we took our foot off the pedal in the last 20 minutes.”

Italy played McLean at outside half last year but he is set to return to his more favoured full-back slot this season.

“I am happiest at full-back,” he confirms. “I used to be a No 10 as a kid but now enjoy playing No 15.”

Such a position is sure to give him a nice, easy ride at Croke Park because he’ll only be up against Ireland’s Rob Kearney, who for me is now the No 1 full-back in the world.

McLean nodded. “He’s certainly one of the best around and he has a complete game. He’s got a massive boot, can run from anywhere and he uses his pace well. Give him space and he will punish you.”

Just another problem for McLean and the Azzurri this weekend . . .

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