Paul O’Connell insists that the loss of Sergio Parisse through injury will not lessen the challenge for Ireland as they begin their RBS 6 Nations title defence against a fired-up Italian side at Croke Park on Saturday.
A snapped cruciate knee ligament has sidelined Italian captain Sergio Parisse for the entire RBS 6 Nations, leaving the Azzurri without one of their key players.
But Ireland lock Paul O’Connell says the absence of Parisse is not concerning the Grand Slam champions as they prepare for what should be a super-charged Championship opener on Saturday afternoon.
“He’s a great player and he’s a loss for them but no one team is built around one man,” admitted O’Connell.
“They’ll move on, same as we would if we had an injury to one of our top players.
“Certainly he’s a great player and a big loss to them, but we’ve got to look beyond that and not be too worried about that.”
Whatever line-up coach Nick Mallett plumps for, the Italians are sure to have strength in depth in their pack.
With players of the calibre and experience of prop Martin Castrogiovanni (62 caps), lock Marco Bortolami (77 caps) and flanker Mauro Bergamasco (79 caps) in their panel, O’Connell, as a hardened Six Nations campaigner, is well aware of the physical contests Mallett’s men thrive on.
“The set piece is very strong for them, lineout and scrum. You really need to work hard and take them on there, and see what happens after that.
“There’s no doubt at the weekend it will be a big forward battle, and we need to perform there before the backs can do anything.”
Italy failed to win any of their Championship matches last year, finishing bottom of the pile, but they have the ability to start well in the Six Nations – they beat Scotland in their opening game in 2000, did likewise to Wales in 2003 and just two seasons ago they ran Ireland to five points at Croke Park.
O’Connell agreed: “Italy are improving (every year). The longer they’re in the competition, the better they get.
“Everyone knows up front is where their real strength is. Every year we always say it, it’s probably our toughest game physically, the Italy game. It’s going to be a very tough one to start with.”
However, Ireland are a side brimming with confidence after their Grand Slam success and an unbeaten GUINNESS Series which was capped off by a nuggety win over World Cup and Tri Nations champions South Africa.
Declan Kidney’s men are odds-on to get their title defence off to a winning start on Saturday, and O’Connell and his team-mates are fully focused on getting the job done.
Asked to compare the current side to where they were this time last year, the Munster captain said: “I think there’s a relaxed confidence about the squad now. This time a year ago, we had worked hard in the autumn but we had really had a poor autumn coming into the Six Nations and we really needed to produce something special, and that’s what we did last time around.
“I think we’ve a lot of confidence and knowledge of what we’re doing now. We’ve come a lot way in terms of how we want to play and things we want to do.
“We’re a lot more used to the coaches we have and the way they expect to have things done. So, I suppose it leaves us in a position where we haven’t as much to do as we did this time last year.”