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Six Nations: Ireland to make it hot for Italians

By Niall Crozier

Ireland captain Paul O’Connell is looking forward to leading his troops over the top and into battle against the Italians today at the Aviva Stadium (1.30pm).

It’s an early start, but O’Connell can live with that. That’s hardly surprising; you get the impression he’d play at 1.30 in the morning if that’s what it took to get this show back on the road.

Finally, after three weeks of waiting to return to action, it’s about to happen. Ireland are set to resume the championship campaign forced into cold storage by a Parisian frost.

In contrast to the French froid, the action in Dublin tomorrow looks like being pretty hot, with two good packs of forwards going head-to-head in pursuit of their first championship wins of 2012. It promises to be quite a scrap when those big men lock horns.

O’Connell has enormous respect for the Italian forwards.

“Their scrum has caused us quite a lot of problems in the past,” he concedes. “They’ve an excellent scrum and we struggled against their maul in the World Cup; they gained a lot of momentum from that. And they’ve an excellent lineout.

“They’re very good around the fringes as well, both defensively and in attack.”

Not too many obvious Italian frailties up front, then.

“It’s always a really tough, physical game and they’ve probably added a bit to that now. But while they’ve been keeping the ball a little more, playing with a bit more in their hands since the Six Nations started, their pack is still their biggest threat,” he insists.

Nevertheless the Italians’ new-found desire to move the ball makes them a little less predictable and a whole lot more dangerous than before. New coach Jacques Brunel takes the credit, having encouraged the Azzurri to embrace a more expansive, creative, skilful brand of football.

It won’t happen overnight, of course, but already there is evidence of progress, as O’Connell points out.

“I think their attack has been a lot better in the last two games. So they’re beginning to mix it both ways; I suppose that’s what you have to do to be successful,” he reasons.

“They’ve a big strong pack who can get you over the gainline but when you do that you’ve got to be able to attack out wide. Italy have improved a lot in that regard since the Six Nations started.”

Although the three-week hold-up has been frustrating, the skipper sees a positive aspect in the form of the hunger that wait has created in the Irish team. Physically, too, he tells you, they’re in very good nick for the next four weekends.

“The guys are dying to play. We’d already been well looked after by the IRFU coming into the competition; we’d got two weeks without any games straight after the World Cup and we got two weeks without any games over Christmas so the guys were well rested and fresh coming in,” he says.

“This break hasn’t been ideal. When you lose a game — particularly in the fashion we lost to Wales — you just want to get back up and play again, so to have been sitting on our hands these past few weeks has been frustrating.

“But what that means is that we’re now really looking forward to playing again,” he insists.

Another of the pluses he sees is the fact that the unexpected cessation has given the Irish players more time together as a team. He thinks that, too, could prove beneficial in the longer term.

“Coming into this competition, certainly we’d a lot of players playing very well,” he reminds you, a reference to Ireland having three provinces in the last eight of the Heineken Cup, the biggest representation from any country. France have two and England, Scotland and Wales one apiece.

“Now the challenge is to get those guys playing very well together for Ireland and I think spending extra time together on the training pitch has been a good thing,” O’Connell adds.

Just how good, time will tell, but Ireland go into the second of their five championship games as fully justified favourites, never having lost a Six Nations game to Italy.

They last clashed as recently as October 2 when Ireland won their World Cup Pool C showdown 36-6 in Dunedin thanks to a very good second half performance which saw them score 27 unanswered points.

One suspects they would take a similar outcome today.

Belfast Telegraph

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