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Countdown To Croker: Two Days To Go

Countdown To Croker: Two Days To Go

…Best Expecting No Favours From Del Fava…Italians Eager To Make Up For ‘One That Got Away’…If The Kap Fits…Say What?…Numbers Game…

BEST EXPECTING NO FAVOURS FROM DEL FAVA: It is always particularly interesting to see club-mates lining out in opposition in the international arena. Italy lock Carlo Del Fava, in his first season with Ulster, will be hoping to get one over on his Ulster colleagues Rory Best and Andrew Trimble when they take to the Croke Park pitch on Saturday.

Certainly Del Fava, who will partner Santiago Dellape in Italy’s second row, will be trying to use whatever inside knowledge he has to disrupt Best’s lineout throwing but the Ireland hooker is relishing the challenge.

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“Carlo’s start for Italy is well deserved, he has been one of Ulster’s leading forwards this season,” admitted Best, who is back to full fitness after a recent ankle injury.

“I’m sure he will be helping the Italian forwards do their homework on me as I will be for the Irish forwards.

“It will be strange lining up opposite him instead of beside him but that is the beauty of international rugby and of getting top quality players into the Ulster squad.”

ITALIANS EAGER TO MAKE UP FOR ‘ONE THAT GOT AWAY’: Although losing 18-16 to Scotland and missing out on a World Cup quarter-final place was undoubtedly Italy’s biggest disappointment of 2007, their last-gasp 23-20 defeat to Ireland in a warm-up fixture in August still wrankles with them.

It took a controversial 89th-minute try from Ronan O’Gara to prevent the Irish from losing in the first senior international to be held at Ravenhill since 1954.

One player who was almost distraught by conceding that late score, veteran scrum half Alessandro Troncon, has now moved upstairs in the Italian set-up to assist new coach Nick Mallett.

Looking forward to Saturday’s game in Dublin, Troncon said: “I expect Ireland will try to give us trouble from the start, using their physical advantage, but we can match them.

“I remember how we almost beat them in Dublin two years ago and in a Test match last summer in Belfast. This time we’ll try harder for sure.”

Although admitting that tears still come to his eyes when he thinks about the Scotland game, Italian centre Mirco Bergamasco is confident his side can move on and equal or better last year’s best-ever haul of two Six Nations wins.

“Ireland hasn’t changed that much from the World Cup but we want to beat them. We’re going to be focused on our playing in this match and all the others up through March 15,” Bergamasco said.

“We’re going to try to not let anyone down because there is such growing interest in the game (in the country). This year we’ve got a younger team and that’s an improvement. I feel we’re getting better day by day.”

IF THE KAP FITS: Jonathan Kaplan is a familiar face to Irish rugby fans. The 41-year-old, who remains South Africa’s number one-ranked referee, has been drafted in to replace calf injury victim Chris White as the man in the middle for Saturday’s Six Nations opener at Croke Park.

Ironically, Kaplan was in charge for Ireland’s 51-24 win over Italy in Rome on the final day of last year’s championship.

The former businessman, who cites prawn curry as his favourite meal and Snow Patrol as one of his favourite bands, started refereeing in 1984 and whistled his first Test match when Zimbabwe played Namibia in 1996.

Kaplan was the only man to control two matches in the 2007 Six Nations – the aforementioned Italy v Ireland game and also England v France.

The South African has been in charge for some of the biggest Six Nations matches of recent years, including the first ever match in the six-team format, between Italy and Scotland in 2000, and the Grand Slam decider between Ireland and England in 2003.

He has also been trusted with some other major clashes, including the second Lions Test against Australia in 2001, and the third Test against New Zealand in 2005.

He was in the middle in both the 2003 and 2007 World Cups after being a touch judge in 1999, and refereed England’s 14-9 win over hosts France in the semi-final of last year’s World Cup.

He got a taste of Irish club rugby and the County Wicklow coastline last weekend by refereeing the AIB League Division One encounter between Greystones and Blackrock College at Dr. Hickey Park.


“The final squad selection this year has been difficult, which is a testament to the quality of players who have come through this year.

“What we have looked for and ended up with are players who will challenge for a place in the starting fifteen and any one of them, if called upon, are more than capable of representing Ireland. At international level, strength in depth is what you need – and that is what we have.”

– Ireland Women’s coach John O’Sullivan on the new-found strength in depth in his squad, as they gear up for their championship opener against Italy on Friday

“I like going to the gym now. I hated that for years, while now I love it. Some of that is to do with the people you work with and the motivation you get from them.

“But in the last few years, with Leinster and Ireland, there’s a competitive atmosphere in the gym 0 you want to lift more, to get more powerful.

“I have blue Mondays just like everyone else, I get up and feel ‘I don’t want to be a rugby player today’.

“Myself and Shane Horgan and were in Riverview Fitness Centre a few years ago and Adam Clayton was there, working out – well, lifting 3 or 4kg dumbbells. And nowadays when we’re not in the mood, we say ‘ah, I feel like an Adam Clayton session today …’, it’s like you can’t be arsed with a heavy session in the gym.

“But then you get into it. A switch flicks, and while you might be tired at the start, you get that endorphin release and you get a great kick out of it.”

– Speaking to the Irish Examiner, Ireland captain Brian O’Driscoll discusses his enjoyment of gym work and the physical prowess of a certain U2 bassist

“Italy has got some outstanding talent at the top but we’ve got 40,000 players, not 400,000 and it is important to nurture those players at the top and it’s a hell of a step up from playing rugby in the lower divisions to playing internationals.

“Yes, it’s as tough a challenge as I’ve ever had and it doesn’t help that I’ve lost a scrum half like (Alessandro) Troncon through retirement or (Marco) Bortolami who is injured. The challenge will be making the team competitive in a tough environment.

“It is difficult coaching a team whose players are dispersed over the continent but no, I’m not frustrated by that and I won’t be getting involved in any of the politics as I did in South Africa.”

– New Italy coach Nick Mallett tells the Guardian of the size of the task he faces in maintaining the Azzurri’s competitiveness in the Six Nations and beyond


2 – Three Italian players scored two tries each in the 2007 Six Nations championship. Flanker Mauro Bergamasco scored twice in the wins over Scotland and Wales, while winger Kaine Robertson did likewise. Experienced out-half Andrea Scanavacca dotted down twice against England and Scotland

5:18 – According to SAS Software’s statistics, Ireland were the most effective team at turning possession into tries in the 2007 Six Nations championship. It took the men in green an average of 5 minutes and 18 seconds of possession to cross the opposition’s whitewash, compared to 8 minutes and 7 seconds in the 2006 tournament

14 – The number of tries that Ireland’s starting backs for Saturday’s game against Italy have scored in previous internationals against the Azzurri. Full-back Girvan Dempsey leads the way with four tries in nine Tests, including two in last March’s meeting in Rome. Scrum half Eoin Reddan is the odd man out – this weekend’s game will see him facing Italy for the first time