Six Nations Rugby: Do Italy Have a Chance Against Injury-Ravaged Ireland?
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If it is February, it must be time for the Six Nations, the rugby competition so venerable that it makes every other contest—the World Cup, the Tri-Nations—look like a pretentious young upstart.
In the tournament's second game, Italy—wooden spoonists of the last three competitions—take on an injury-depleted Ireland.
There are two ways of looking at Italian rugby.
One is that, like Bangladesh in cricket, they made a good case for being admitted to a competition that they were not ready for yet. They lack world class players and have struggled in every Six Nations.
That said, though, if they are going to beat Ireland then this is their best chance.
Last season, they were without their one truly great player, Sergio Parisse.
This year, the former captain is back at No. 8 and will be the man whom everything revolves around.
Martin Castrogiovanni and Santiago Dellape are not far behind him in pure positional ability, but both lack that extra bit of class that makes a standout player. The rest of the pack is comprised of journeymen who would struggle to make most Premiership teams.
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The back line is the usual Italian mix of natives, plus displaced Argentines and antipodeans.
Gonzalo Canale is the one truly decent player, although Mirco Bergamasco remains a threat with both his kicking and running from deep.
Like England, Ireland could probably pick a full team from the players they have missing and injured: Jamie Heaslip, Stephen Ferris, Rob Kearney, Geordan Murphy, Tommy Bowe—the list goes on and on.
If you had to pick a team to play with an injury depleted side, though, it would be Italy and although this will be a testing game for them, it will not be as tough as those to come.
Debutant prop Mike Ross is perhaps the most talked about player in Ireland at the moment. However, the loss of the experience of the man he replaces, John Hayes, is tempered by the fact that Hayes has been almost immobile for two seasons; the more you can move the ball against Italy, the harder they find it.
With the exciting Sean O'Brien to replace Heaslip and the dependable Denis Leamy coming in for Ferris, the back row should still match Parisse and co at the back of the scrum, whilst the return of former captain Paul O'Connell from suspension gives considerable power to the second row.
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Everything will, of course, hinge upon the veteran centre pairing of captain Brian O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy.
There is not a lot of experience around them, with Fergus McFadden making his Six Nations debut on one wing and Luke Fitzgerald playing full back for the first time behind them.
Where the game will be won or lost
Italy's strength is in their pack and they will look to keep the ball tight as much as possible. They should achieve parity in the scrums, but as soon as the ball goes to the backs they become very predictable.
Ireland, by contrast, will want O'Driscoll and D'Arcy to have as much of the ball as possible, and this is the time for the promising half back pairing of Tomas O'Leary and Johnny Sexton to really stamp their authority on the game.
A close first half, before Ireland run away with the game in the second.
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