Champions Ireland head to Rome on Sunday looking to build momentum in their stuttering Six Nations title defence with a big win over underdogs Italy who have been hit by the absence of captain Sergio Parisse.
Italy’s task was already difficult before skipper Parisse suffered concussion while playing for his club Stade Francais last Saturday.
For Italy coach Conor O’Shea, a former Ireland full-back, it now looks like mission impossible against his home country ranked second in the world behind New Zealand.
“He is talismanic for them,” said Ireland coach Joe Schmidt of Parisse.
“It will effect them no doubt because of the standing and respect he has.”
Italy have not won a Six Nations game in four years with defeats against Scotland (33-20) and Wales (26-15) this campaign bringing that tally up to 19 consecutive games.
Ireland — the 2018 Grand Slam winners — are fourth in the Six Nations table having beaten Scotland (22-13) in their last match after losing their opener to England (32-20).
Both sides last met in Chicago in November, when Ireland ran out 54-7 winners.
A big win over the Italians would give Schmidt’s side a boost before hosting France in Dublin on March 10, with their finale against Wales in Cardiff the following week.
Despite the calibre of the opposition Schmidt has made just four changes — all in the pack — leaving the backs unchanged with first-choice half-back pair Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton.
“I thought (Braam) Steyn was absolutely outstanding in that last game,” said Schmidt of the South African-born flanker who moves into Parisse’s position at number eight.
“Their backrow power is going to challenge us physically,” said Schmidt.
“It does still make for a very competitive back row when you bring in (Maxime) Mbanda and (Jimmy) Tuivaiti.
“The likes of (Michele) Campagnaro, (Edoardo) Padovani and (Angelo) Esposito, those guys will be a great challenge for us.”
– ‘Best foot forward’ –
Hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini, capped 101 times, takes the Azzurri captain’s armband for the 17th time.
Ghiraldini, 34, is the only remaining member of the side that achieved Italy’s last Six Nations success at home, against Ireland in March 2013.
It was Italy’s only win against the Irish in 19 games in the championship since joining in 2000.
Peter O’Mahony will captain Ireland with regular skipper Rory Best rested with Leinster’s two-time Champions Cup-winning stalwart Sean Cronin taking his place at hooker.
Although he has been capped 67 times by Ireland, 58 of Cronin’s appearances have come off the bench — a record for any Ireland replacement.
And Schmidt expects Cronin, making his 10th Test start, will be looking to oust Best.
“I’m sure that’s his intention,” said Schmidt.
“As much he’s very team-oriented, he will personally want to put his best foot forward.
“It’s a great opportunity for Sean and I’m hopeful he’ll grab it with both hands.
“He’ll have the confidence from the 10 starts he has had in different fixtures, but the amount of times he’s come off the bench and been involved in really important wins for us, I think, why not bring that from the start.
“Hopefully it will be a confidence-building performance.”
O’Shea, meanwhile, who took over in March 2016, remained defiant that his strategy would finally reap a first Six Nations win.
“I don’t listen to criticism, I know what we are doing and our work is going in the right direction.”