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Six Nations Italy 10-35 Ireland: Hat-trick for Stander as clinical Ireland seal bonus point try

Leinster ace confident Ireland won't be thrown off course as skipper hasn't recovered in time to face Italy despite lack of hooker options

By Jonathan Bradley

Given the physical toll involved in Test rugby, it's quite the remarkable stat that Eddie O'Sullivan was the last Irish coach who had to deal with the loss of Rory Best for a Six Nations clash.

Leading the team out last week in Murrayfield was the 51st consecutive championship clash for the skipper, a decade-long run that has now ended thanks to a stomach complaint.

The squad departed for Rome on Thursday evening and the hooker felt unwell during the night, subsequently missing yesterday's Captain's Run at the Stadio Olimpico.

Ireland were confident he would still take the field this afternoon but Leinster hooker James Tracy was flown in as emergency cover.

But Saturday afternoon saw Best ruled out.

While the root of the problem is unknown, Easterby added that Best had been kept isolated from team-mates throughout yesterday.

"So yeah, as far as we know it's not contagious and the doctor is covering everything off and making sure that we get to the bottom of it," said the coach, asking to be forgiven for the pun.

"He has obviously been put into his own bedroom, in a bit of isolation.

"He's fortunate that as captain he does receive his own room.

Best absence's at hooker is enormous.

One of two positions, along with scrum-half, where Ireland have an issue with depth at Test level due to an injury to Sean Cronin, Munster's Niall Scannell was on the bench last week but did not come on for what would have been an Ireland debut.

Tracy meanwhile won his only cap against Canada in November.

Easterby stressed, however, that neither would be here if they were not ready for the big stage.

"Niall wouldn't be in the squad if we weren't confident that he could transfer his Munster form," he said.

"That's why he's on the bench, he's been in really good form and all of the players have to be ready to start if needed and we'd be confident that he can step up when asked."

Much was made last week over how Ireland coped with the set-back dealt to their preparation by a late arrival at Murrayfield, with the possibility that this similarly unexpected alteration could cause a similar throwing off of the mindset.

Citing the example of Paul O'Connell's late withdrawal against Scotland in 2014, when he was replaced by then-Ulster lock Dan Tuohy, Jamie Heaslip said there will be no breaking of stride.

"It'd be no issue at all," said the man who is to skipper in Best's absence.

"Something similar happened with Paulie a few years ago, so no problem.

"You don't want your captain to miss the Captain's Run ideally, but the boys will get on with the job at hand."

While Italy began their campaign with defeat against Wales at home last Sunday, Heaslip still believes former Ireland full-back Conor O'Shea has the Azzurri heading in the right direction.

"We've got a massive challenge ahead of us," said the durable number 8.

"I think Italy have been under a really good transformation since Conor has come in. We've seen that with their November series and last week so we know we've got a huge challenge against us.

"Our learning from last week is that we obviously can't gift a team the start that we did and that's very fixable, because a lot of the mistakes were on us and giving Scotland opportunity to get into the game.

"If we did something similar against Italy they'd punish us as well."

Indeed when Heaslip was last here, in 2013, Italy did just that for their only Six Nations win over today's opposition.

"The last time I was here it wasn't a great place to be," he recalled.

"But in terms of atmosphere, it's a real Colosseum. The Italians love their rugby.

"I went for a walk this morning and saw lots of Irish already over. Lots of lads who have swung the rugby on Valentine's weekend, I don't know how they've managed that.

"It's going to be a real cauldron and it's exciting."

Belfast Telegraph

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