The first leg of Ireland’s 2011 RBS 6 Nations odyssey begins in Rome, with Italy hoping to cause an opening weekend upset. But Declan Kidney’s men, who also face the Azzurri in this year’s Rugby World Cup, have trained well and look primed to take the spoils.
2011 RBS 6 NATIONS CHAMPIONSHIP: Saturday, February 5
ITALY v IRELAND, Stadio Flaminio, 3.30pm local time/2.30pm Irish time (live RTÉ Two/BBC One)
Team News: The Ireland team to play Italy in Rome in their opening game of the 2011 RBS 6 Nations Championship contains one new cap and nine changes to the side that beat Argentina last November.
Selected on the right wing, Leinster’s Fergus McFadden will win his first senior cap for Ireland this weekend. He joins Keith Earls and Luke Fitzgerald in a new back-three combination.
It will be Fitzgerald’s first start at full-back in a Six Nations match. He previously donned the number 15 jersey for the November win over Samoa.
The final change to the back-line sees Tomas O’Leary come in at scrum half after missing all of the GUINNESS Series in November due to a thumb injury.
In the pack, Rory Best returns to the side at hooker with Mike Ross earning his first Six Nations start at tighthead prop.
Paul O’Connell, who was also sidelined for the November internationals, returns to the team to earn his 71st cap in the second row.
The back row contains a new combination at international level, with Denis Leamy selected alongside his Munster colleague David Wallace and Leinster’s Sean O’Brien, who is another first-time starter in the Championship.
Commenting on the team selection, head coach Declan Kidney explained his reasoning behind playing Fitzgerald at full-back and Earls, who is also comfortable in the position, on the wing.
“If it’s a head-to-head between Keith and Luke, Keith is quite comfortable on the wing. Luke doesn’t mind playing on the wing, (but) he prefers to play full-back and when it comes to something like that you pick a guy who will play better in a position he prefers,” he said.
“The big person to lose out is Gavin Duffy. Gavin was very unfortunate to lose out in this order, but I thought the combination that Fergus, Luke and Keith give us in the back-three is a good one for us in the way we want to play.”
Front rower Ross, who has been a regular starter for Leinster this season, will win his third Ireland cap and first since the 2009 summer tour to Canada and the USA.
Confident that he will make the step up to Championship level, Kidney said: “Obviously Mike has been playing well recently and deserves his go. Of all the Irish-qualified props that are playing, he is playing the best at the moment. He is fit, so deserves a go.”
O’Connell’s return to the side sees him link up once again with Donncha O’Callaghan in a vastly-experienced lock combination that has served Ireland well over the years.
“Donncha has been a stalwart of the team over the last number of years. There is huge competition for the place, both from Leo (Cullen) and Mick O’Driscoll.
“It’s impossible to play them all at the one time, but Donncha and Paul have been a good combination for us. So, I see no reason not to go with them.”
Meanwhile, Sergio Parisse has recovered from a dislocated finger to captain Italy against Ireland, while Benetton Treviso’s Kris Burton has been selected as the Azzurri’s starting out-half.
Nick Mallett’s selected team shows four changes to the Italy side that beat Fiji 24-16 in the last of their November internationals in Modena.
The Brisbane-born Burton, who has produced some impressive displays for Benetton Treviso this season, has been rewarded with the number 10 jersey.
The game will mark Burton’s Six Nations debut and first appearance for Italy since he won his fourth cap against New Zealand in June 2009.
He comes in for the benched Luciano Orquera, in the only change to the back-line from the Fiji fixture. Treviso’s Edoardo Gori will win his third successive cap at scrum half.
Italy’s number 10 from last year’s Six Nations, Craig Gower, has been ruled out with knee ligament damage, while a shoulder injury has sidelined influential flanker Mauro Bergamasco.
Leonardo Ghiraldini, Santiago Dellape and Josh Sole return in the forwards, with Fabio Ongaro, Carlo Del Fava and Robert Barbieri making way.
Parisse’s availability at number 8 is a real boost to the Italians after he missed the 2010 Championship with a serious knee injury. He dislocated his finger in action for Stade Francais last week, but has been passed fit to face Ireland.
Parisse will captain the Azzurri from the back row, with Sole slotting in at blindside flanker and Alessandro Zanni moving to the openside berth.
ITALY: Luke McLean (Benetton Treviso); Andrea Masi (Racing Metro 92), Gonzalo Canale (Clermont Auvergne), Alberto Sgarbi (Benetton Treviso), Mirco Bergamasco (Racing Metro 92); Kris Burton (Benetton Treviso), Edoardo Gori (Benetton Treviso); Salvatore Perugini (Aironi Rugby), Leonardo Ghiraldini (Benetton Treviso), Martin Castrogiovanni (Leicester Tigers), Santiago Dellape (Racing Metro 92), Quintin Geldenhuys (Aironi Rugby), Josh Sole (Aironi Rugby), Alessandro Zanni (Benetton Treviso), Sergio Parisse (Stade Francais) (capt).
Replacements: Fabio Ongaro (Aironi Rugby), Andrea Lo Cicero (Racing Metro 92), Carlo Del Fava (Aironi Rugby), Valerio Bernabo (Benetton Treviso), Pablo Canavosio (Aironi Rugby), Luciano Orquera (Brive), Gonzalo Garcia (Benetton Treviso).
IRELAND: Luke Fitzgerald (Blackrock College/Leinster); Fergus McFadden (Old Belvedere/Leinster), Brian O’Driscoll (UCD/Leinster) (capt), Gordon D’Arcy (Lansdowne/Leinster), Keith Earls (Thomond/Munster); Jonathan Sexton (St. Mary’s College/Leinster), Tomas O’Leary (Dolphin/Munster); Cian Healy (Clontarf/Leinster), Rory Best (Banbridge/Ulster), Mike Ross (Clontarf/Leinster), Donncha O’Callaghan (Cork Constitution/Munster), Paul O’Connell (Young Munster/Munster), Denis Leamy (Cork Constitution/Munster), David Wallace (Garryowen/Munster), Sean O’Brien (Clontarf/Leinster).
Replacements: Sean Cronin (Buccaneers/Connacht), Tom Court (Malone/Ulster), Leo Cullen (Blackrock College/Leinster), Shane Jennings (St. Mary’s College/Leinster), Eoin Reddan (Lansdowne/Leinster), Ronan O’Gara (Cork Constitution/Munster), Paddy Wallace (Ballymena/Ulster).
Referee: Romain Poite (France)
Assistant Referees: Jerome Garces (France), David Changleng (Scotland)
Television Match Official: Geoff Warren (England)
Match Odds (Paddy Power): Italy to win: 6/1; Draw: 30/1; Ireland to win: 1/10
Pre-Match Quotes: Brian O’Driscoll (Ireland) – “From my earliest memories, if you don’t play properly for 80 minutes the Italians can turn you over. In the past, you felt as though you might have the upper hand in the last quarter of the game and that if you kept ahead of them you could put them away in that last section of the game.
“That definitely hasn’t been the case in the last couple of years. They’ve managed to stay with teams an awful lot longer and they’ve been hugely impressive.
“If you see some of the results from my own province, we lost to Treviso away and the more the Italian teams play in the Magners League, the more they play that harder, more physical brand, the better they’ll get.
“And the fact that a lot of their units, their half-backs are playing together, small units like that playing together more often in harder circumstances makes them more battle-hardened. That will help them when it comes to international rugby.
“They’ve picked up a couple of good scalps in recent Six Nations over here, against Wales and Scotland and I suppose it’s inevitable at some stage they’re likely to beat Ireland in a Six Nations game. Let’s just hope it’s not tomorrow (Saturday).”
Nick Mallett (Italy) – “Each year for us it’s difficult. The Six Nations is a complicated tournament and it is not an issue to do with the calendar.
“We simply have to continue to improve. We will of course go out on the pitch trying to win all of our games.
“Our front row is among the strongest in the world with props like (Martin) Castrogiovanni, (Salvatore) Perugini and (Andrea) Lo Cicero. Also we have a very strong back row, and it will be interesting to see how (Edoardo) Gori will do in the tournament.
“Gower and Mauro are two players that have great experience, but their absences open up a possibility to see new players at a high level.
“In the back row, Barbieri did very well in November, just as (Paul) Derbyshire did, while Orquera put in two good performances against Australia and Fiji and I believe it’s time to see Burton, who right now is the Italian out-half that is playing best in the Magners League.”
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