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Jamie Heaslip wary of another horror show for Ireland at Stadio Olimpico

By Cormac Byrne

Jamie Heaslip is anxious to sound a note of caution ahead of Ireland's trip to the Stadio Olimpico because his most recent memory of the Italian capital is far from pleasant.

Ireland's 22-15 defeat, their first against the Italians in 13 years, marked the end of the Declan Kidney era and was one of the darkest days in Irish rugby since the turn of the century.

Things have changed utterly since then for Ireland, but the problems the Italians can cause are plentiful, and the national vice-captain is wary.

"We lost to Italy the last time we were there and I remember it all too well. They'll pose a massive threat," Heaslip (pictured) said.

"Italy get better and better every year and it's off the back of the clubs being in the PRO12 and all their individuals playing well in all the leagues they're in.

"It's a tall task to try and go over there and get a result."

Like all elite sports people, the 31-year-old Kildare man enjoys pitting himself against the world's best and No 8s don't come much better than Sergio Parisse.

The Italian captain will want to lay down a marker, especially with a World Cup meeting at the Olympic Stadium in mind and memories of the 46-7 thumping they took at the Aviva last year on their minds, and Heaslip is looking forward to the challenge.

"I'd love the chance to go up against Parisse next week, he has been, for a number of years now, consistently one of the best No 8s in the world," he added. "He is a massive leader for them, the core of the team, and he's a great bloke off the field. You always want to pit yourself against players like that."

Unusually for Heaslip, he got the hook around the hour mark in Leinster's victory over Castres and the crucial draw at the Ricoh Arena over the past two weekends, but his "Wolverine blood", as he put it himself previously, has kicked in again and he has declared himself 100 per cent fit for action.

"I'm flying these days seeing as I've only played two 60-minute games, I'm used to playing 80-minute games," he said. "I'm fine and dandy, I still haven't missed a game yet, so the Wolverine blood is going well."

Since September, Heaslip has escaped the need to tip-toe around Cian Healy while he sleeps, but his regular room-mate is back, as is Iain Henderson, who had an impressive seasonal return in Ulster's victory over Leicester at the weekend, and Sean O'Brien is also back throwing his weight around at Carton House.

Heaslip continued: "I haven't roomed with 'Church' (Healy) since September, even with Leinster I usually room with him, so it was great to see him sleeping on the floor again.

"We stay in the nicest hotels in the world and he always stays on the floor, and the weirdest thing is that when they come in to make your room up, they make his bed on the floor.

"It's great to have Hendy, Seanie, it's great to have Luke (Fitzgerald) back in the environment as well. He's been in sensational form for Leinster.

"Seanie is chomping at the bit, as bullish as ever in training, and Cian is like a caged animal that they all keep poking a stick at. They're all in good spirits and raring to go.

"Seanie hasn't played a lot of rugby in the last two years and Cian isn't used to this amount of period off and as he said himself, he felt like a professional weight-lifter the last while, because he was so limited."

Meanwhile, Italy captain Parisse believes Ireland currently boast the strongest team in the northern hemisphere but insists the Azzurri can still win when the sides meet on Saturday week.

Italy open up their campaign at the Stadio Olimpico, knowing their opponents are in strong form after recording wins over South Africa and Australia in the autumn series.

"Ireland are probably the best team in the northern hemisphere - it is a chance for us to play them at home," Parisse said.

"Everyone saw how Ireland played in November. They are a very complete team, they have good backs, good forwards, they are very dynamic especially in terms of defence.

"They are good at the turnover, at building mauls and getting in front of teams - they are a difficult team to play against.

"I know they have some injuries but they will arrive with a very competitive side."

Belfast Telegraph

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