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RBS 6 Nations Preview: Ireland vs. Italy

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With both teams out of the championship equation, one would think that both teams would embrace the fixture by making fresh changes and seeing potential talent in a test match arena; well scratch that comment, Italy have embraced the nothing to lose attitude while Ireland management have flat out lost a massive opportunity to evaluate up and coming players.

Only Joe Schmidt and management can possibly explain their logic behind the decision to drop Stuart McCloskey from the match day squad. The powerful Ulster three quarter who impressed on his debut against Twickenham two weeks ago is now deemed surplus to requirements as provincial colleague Jared Payne comes into the three quarter division to partner Leinster bound Robbie Henshaw.

Payne and Henshaw as a three quarter partnership have being defensively solid but there has being precious little in attacking cohesion where McCloskey’s powerful direct running line did cause England problems and when you add the defensive issues experienced by the Italian three quarters, it was screaming for McCloskey and Henshaw to be the three quarter pairing this weekend.

Henshaw reveled in the thirteen jersey last time out, making several eye catching line breaks and should have had a try in the second half. His pace and attacking lines will be undermined in the twelve channel. It is just a bad call from Ireland management and I make no apology for it on this blog posting.

If you think that I am bashing Payne think again as the player should be given the fifteen jersey in the absence of Rob Kearney whose hamstring problems have surfaced yet again. Payne’s track record at full back with Ulster is excellent, his game reading and decision making when to hit the line with ball in hand are superb. Simon Zebo’s inclusion is a solid pick but it was an opportunity to evaluate what other options the side has at the position.

The ultra conservative team selection from Joe Schmidt has potentially provided optimism for the Italians ahead of this weekend. Italy must think that Ireland are running low on confidence such are the limited changes in the starting lineup.

Brunel has thrown caution to the wind and names a brand new half-back partnership. Padovani and Palazzani cannot do much worse than their predecessors whose game management and kicking game have being horrendous at times. The unknown is exciting and with fresh blood, existing Italian stalwarts like Parisse in the ranks may have an added pep in the step this weekend.

Italy do have injury issues with injured lock Josh Furno (back) and hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini (shoulder) making way for George Biagi and Davide Giazzon. The lineout could be an area of promise for Ireland whose lineout has also misfired with the absence of O’Connell (retirement) and O’Mahoney (injury). Toner needs to step up this weekend with Ultan Dillane waiting in the wings.

Potential dry day and fast track at the Aviva Stadium will make the breakdown battle even more compelling. Parisse is a man mountain, an exceptional leader who leads from the front. The Stade Francais player will carry ball relentlessly but Ireland’s back row should be more than a match to stop the talisman and win the breakdown battle.

van der Flier’s encouraging debut against England if continued will see the Leinster youngster prominent in stealing Italian ball. When you add the ball carrying impact of Stander and Heaslip, Ireland look to have the edge albeit will be difficult for the first hour with the industrious Zanni in competition.

Ireland scrum has had a rough time in this championship so far. Officiating inconsistency in the first three fixtures were pointed out by Ireland management but surely Ireland’s front three will look forward to packing down against a relatively inexperienced Italian opponent. No Castrogiovanni or Ghiraldini to provide experience or nous and that could be vital in the outcome of this contest.

I applaud Italy’s open team selection but the pack looks weak with some key injury withdrawals. Ireland will win by ten points but the rumblings of discontent at the style of play will continue. Expect aerial dominance and maybe expansive rugby in the last ten minutes, other than that, this could be a patchy Ireland performance.