DUBLIN, Feb 9, 2018 (BSS/AFP) – Ireland host Italy in the Six Nations on Saturday with the hosts seeking to make it two wins from two after Johnny Sexton’s dramatic overtime drop goal sealed a 15-13 win over France last Saturday.
Here AFP Sports looks at five salient points ahead of Saturday’s clash at Lansdowne Road (kick-off 1415GMT):
Bonus point essential for Irish
Ireland are hot favourites to win but with the Six Nations expected to go down to the wire, earning a bonus point for scoring four tries is a must — particularly given England did against the Azzurri last week. Ireland were the only side not to score a try last weekend and head coach Joe Schmidt is asking for patience from fans if the tries don’t come early this time. “I remember four years ago when we won the championship by points-differential, we scored 19 points (against Italy) in the last six minutes,” said Schmidt. “If the crowd can be patient, maybe we can do something similar.”
Leavy rolls off backrow conveyor belt
Perhaps emblematic of the strength in depth the Irish have developed under Schmidt is the back row. A few years ago losing Sean O’Brien and his replacement Josh van der Flier would have provoked panic stations. Instead, Dan Leavy proved himself in the heat of battle in Paris and gets his first Six Nations start alongside Leinster team-mate Jack Conan, who is in at No.8 for CJ Stander. Schmidt believes their introduction will not unbalance the back row. “Peter O’Mahony brings leadership and experience and the two young lads will bring enthusiasm and hunger,” said Schmidt. Italy’s old warhorse captain and No.8 Sergio Parisse may have a thing or two to say about that.
Perfect stage for O’Shea
Conor O’Shea has drawn plaudits from the likes of Eddie Jones and Schmidt for his stewardship of Italy, the poisoned chalice of the Six Nations. Even experienced coaches Nick Mallett and Jacques Brunel failed to engender a significant improvement in Italy’s results. O’Shea will hope his team can give a good enough showing in front of his compatriots on Saturday that come the time 52-year-old Schmidt moves on — his Ireland contract runs till next year’s World Cup — the Italy coach’s name will figure among the main contenders to succeed him.
Larmour ready to shine
Veteran Ireland fullback Rob Kearney has been the undisputed first choice for Leinster and Ireland for the past few years but 20-year-old Jordan Larmour is starting to make some noise. With the World Cup a year away, his charge is coming at the right time. O’Shea made no bones about how he sees Larmour. “He reminds me of a young Christian Cullen (former All Black), because I haven’t seen someone who can step off both feet like that,” said O’Shea, a former Ireland fullback himself. “I couldn’t even step off one foot, I just ran straight the whole time! He is box office, isn’t he?” Schmidt has no doubts about Larmour’s ability under the high ball or work rate and insists his selection is not a risk. “To be honest you don’t select a player to be looked after as he should have an expectation of what is expected of him,” said Schmidt.
Georgian era looming?
Should Italy suffer another heavy defeat on Saturday it will raise more questions as to whether Georgia should replace them in the Six Nations. Italy and O’Shea can point to a largely laudatory performance against England but the fact is they still shipped points in the final quarter. Whilst Six Nations chiefs have thus far resisted calls for Georgia to replace them, the clamour would grow if the Georgians beat Italy in a scheduled November Test.