Lock Paul O’Connell reckons Italy will give Ireland exactly the game they need at Ravenhill on Friday night as they enter the final few weeks before the start of the World Cup.
Ireland will make history on Friday night when they play their first full international at Ravenhill since February 1954 and O’Connell, having bagged a brace of tries in the hard-fought win over Bayonne, is hoping to get some more game-time in Belfast.
“It’s an historic occasion, the first international there in more than half a century, and I’d love to be involved,” he wrote in his column in the Sunday Times.
“Given that we’re in a very tough, physical pool in the World Cup, the Italians should be the perfect opponents for our final warm-up game. They’re probably right up there in terms of their scrummaging, their work around the ruck, their counter-rucking, their pick and go.
“Maybe when they move the ball outside 10, they’re not as strong as other teams, and they don’t have the players to take advantage of their forwards’ excellent work, but when you look at guys such as Mirco Bergamasco and (Gonzalo) Canale, you can see they’re getting there.”
Tries from Marko Stanojevic (2), Kaine Robertson, Andrea Lo Cicero and Mauro Bergamasco helped Italy to a 36-12 friendly win over Japan in the Alpine town of Saint Vincent on Saturday.
And O’Connell knows from previous encounters that the Azzurri will certainly put it up to the hosts in Belfast, adding: “I remember going over to Rome a few years ago as big favourites and they made life very difficult just by running hard at us and competing at every set piece.
“Most of all, they are incredibly hard – the morning after you play Italy in the Six Nations is always the hardest morning of the year for getting out of bed.”
Although admitting that Denis Hickie was the worst surfer on show at Ireland’s warm weather training camp last week in the south of France, O’Connell got serious when discussing the Leinster winger’s retirement announcement.
“I got a shock early in the week from Denis (Hickie). When he popped into my room, I though it was for a rugby chat, about things in general – he’s a bit of a deep thinker on the game.
“But he comes straight out with the new that he’s retiring after the World Cup. That came as a massive shock to me,” explained the Munster captain.
“We chatted about it for a good while. He’s been a professional more or less since the game went pro and not just that, he’s been at the top end since the start.
“I suppose I can see the attraction of stopping when you’re at the top of your game. His hat-trick the other night will make people wonder if he’s stopping too early but he’s happy with his decision and that’s the most important thing.
“He’s been brilliant for Ireland, not just as a record try scorer. He has a subtle kind of way of leading a team, of getting ideas across by suggestion. He’ll be a big loss.”