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Ravenhill is perfect send-off: O'Connell

By Gavin Mairs

It is not too often that Munster men get a rousing cheer at Ravenhill, but Paul O'Connell can't wait to sample the Ravenhill atmosphere when he leads out Ireland for their first game in over 50 years at the Belfast ground.

O'Connell, who takes over the captaincy from Brian O'Driscoll - sidelined for up to four weeks with a fractured sinus for Ireland's final World Cup warm-up match - will follow in the footsteps of fellow Munster man Jim McCarthy, the Ireland captain in 1954 when the home side defeated Scotland 6-0.

The two changes in the side that defeated Bayonne see Ulster's Andrew Trimble switch from right wing to outside centre to fill the void left by O'Driscoll's injury while Leicester star Geordan Murphy comes on to the right wing for what is Ireland's last game to fine tune their preparations for the World Cup.

And O'Connell believes the historic match at Ravenhill, which is a 14,000 sell-out, will be the perfect send-off before heading to France.

"I remember the game when Ireland played against Italy at Thomond Park before the last World Cup four years ago - the crowd got behind the side and they put in a massive performance because of it," said O'Connell.

"I think it is good to have a home fixture away from our normal headquarters and it will be interesting to have the Ulster crowd behind us for once.

"When we come up here with our provinces or the likes of Simon Easterby comes over with his club, it is an incredibly hostile atmosphere and it is very similar to Thomond Park for the Munster boys.

"There is a lot of pride there and a big identity of who they are. It is going to be great for us to get a little piece of that on Saturday and for Italy to feel the hostility that you feel when you come to Ravenhill.

"We've had a massive week here. Everyone has been falling over themselves to help us. The facilities have been fabulous and the weather has made a massive difference."

Ireland coach O'Sullivan described the switch to Ravenhill, with both Lansdowne Road and Thomond Park currently undergoing redevelopment, as a "huge occasion".

"The reaction up here to Ireland playing at Ravenhill has been great," said O'Sullivan. "The tickets were sold out almost instantaneously and there were queues outside Ravenhill. Even when extra tickets went on resale, there was a huge scramble for them.

"There have been people at training every day. It is a great atmosphere, the weather has been fantastic and it is great for the lads to get that kind of support before the game.

"I know it is going to be a full house at Ravenhill and I have been at Ravenhill on many a Friday night for Heineken Cup games. When it starts cooking there it is fantastic and I am looking forward to it for that reason."

O'Sullivan said he was fielding his strongest available line-up, but that he was still looking at combinations, particularly in the midfield and the back row for what is Ireland's last chance for fine-tuning.

"I am looking at if we had two injuries in the centre, what our best combination would be," he added. "Andrew (Trimble) and Gordon (D'Arcy) would be that and hopefully they will prove that on Friday night.

"There is still an element of looking at combinations and having injuries does force your hand a wee bit in tinkering with those combinations.

"Without David Wallace, who is our openside? We have put number seven on Neil Best's back, but we might move him around the game in different situations. But it is pretty much a full hand from what we have available."

As for what he wants from the game on Friday, O'Sullivan is hoping that his side hits the ground running.

"Italy are a bigger ask than Bayonne, but we are looking for a big performance to give the crowd something to cheer about," he added. "Italy are very good opponents because the thing I want at this time of the year is a physical challenge and Italy were the most physical team in the Six Nations last year."

Ireland: G Dempsey; G Murphy, A Trimble, G D'Arcy, D Hickie; R O'Gara, P Stringer; M Horan, R Best, J Hayes, P O'Connell, capt, D O'Callaghan, S Easterby, N Best, D Leamy.

Replacements: J Flannery, S Best, M O'Kelly, S Ferris, I Boss, P Wallace, B Carney.

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