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Ireland out to make a bold statement of intent against callow Italian side

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Six Nations: Ireland v Italy, Aviva Stadium, Saturday, 3.30 – Live on Virgin Media One and ITV

The Aviva echo chamber has become one of the new abnormals since rugby returned toward the end of August, but in all other respects Ireland are in familiar terrain against Italy, namely something of a no-win position.

Everyone expects them to win and win well, and yet, perversely, the better they win, the more it may be devalued. Paddy Power have them at 1-100 to win and a whopping 28-point favourites. They’ve won 19 of the previous 20 Six Nations clashes between the two countries and Italy are on a 25-match losing streak in the competition.

What’s more, as with any team mindful of the need to acquire a bonus point along with the win, there’s always a danger of putting the cart before the horse. Attack coach Mike Catt is aware of this and talks about the team’s processes and performance.

“If we get our processes right we’re going to have a good chance of getting those points. But we’re aware, and the players are fully aware, that it’s not going to be an easy task. So we need to be on point in everything we do, from set-piece, scrums, don’t give Italy any easy outs when they’re coming out of their half with our lack of discipline.

“These are all things we’ve spoken about. We need to squeeze them down in their half and put ourselves in positions to be able to take those points away. But again it’s going to take time to get there.”

Untried or newish combinations abound, except for the Conor Murray-Johnny Sexton halfback axis – which should admittedly provide a reassuring and calming presence – and the potent and in-form Bundee Aki-Garry Ringrose midfield combination.

The pack looks solid and dynamic enough to both secure a strong set-piece foundation as well as plenty of ball carrying ballast, and the performance should be energised further by the presence of four debutants in the 23.

Peter O’Mahony and Rob Herring during the captain’s run at the Aviva Stadium on Friday. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Peter O’Mahony and Rob Herring during the captain’s run at the Aviva Stadium on Friday. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Will Connors and Hugo Keenan seem to have an infectious enthusiasm and Jacob Stockdale’s switch to fullback could light a spark in both him and the team, as well as providing a left-footed option from the back.

With James Lowe’s qualification through residency on the horizon, which perhaps prompted Stockdale to start five of his seven Ulster games since the resumption at fullback, this may prove an opportune time for him to make his switch to ‘15’, all the more so with the unfortunate Jordan Larmour hors de combat for four months.

The Azzurri have had a similar overhaul.Indeed, in making five changes to the starting XV compared to their last outing when losing 17-0 at home to Scotland in February, and 11 overall to his matchday 23, Italian head coach Franco Smith has been even more radical in delving into the recent vintage of under-20 sides.

Most strikingly, he has pitched the left-footed 20-year-old outhalf Paolo Garbisi in for his debut after just two outings for Benetton this season.

The 22-year-old loosehead Danilo Fischetti makes his full Test debut after three earlier appearances this year off the bench while the 25-year-old lock Marco Lazzaroni comes in for the retired Alessandro Zanni in what is also his first Test start after six caps off the bench.

The average age of the side is 25.6, with fullback Jayden Hayward the only member of the squad over the age of 30, the number of caps in the squad had dropped from 553 against Scotland to 350 today.

As well as Garbisi, there are also two more uncapped 20-year-olds on the Italian bench in reserve hooker Gianmarco Lucchesi, whose two appearances for Benetton this season have been off the bench, and the Calvisano winger cum centre Federico Mori.

The Azzurri could be anything, although after spending three and a half years as their head coach before becoming one of Andy Farrell’s assistants, Mike Catt sees this selection as Smith’s continuing search for a Cheetahs style, wide-wide game and agrees with Smith in heralding this as a bright new dawn for the Italian team. But they certainly look relatively callow.

The weather forecast, blustery with showers, may ensure the need for some pragmatism but either way, Catt has no doubt what he wants to see from this Irish side.

“The intent. Our intent in everything we do; defensively, in attack, our kicking game, our kick chase. Everything is about the intent. We want people to understand and see how proud these guys are to put that jersey on, and go and perform for their country.”

Ireland will also have to generate their own energy without fans present, but these players are well used to that by now and, indeed, appear significantly more match hardened than their opponents, an amalgam of Benetton and Zebre players.

For all their changes, Ireland should be well primed and have vastly more experience in key areas of the pitch, none more so than at halfback. However long it takes, they should have enough in their armoury to jump from fourth to first in the table and take their title bid to the last day in Paris.

IRELAND: Jacob Stockdale; Andrew Conway, Garry Ringrose, Bundee Aki, Hugo Keenan; Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray; Cian Healy, Rob Herring, Andrew Porter; Tadhg Beirne, James Ryan; Caelan Doris, Will Connors, CJ Stander.

Replacements: Dave Heffernan, Ed Byrne, Finlay Bealham, Ultan Dillane, Peter O’Mahony, Jamison Gibson Park, Ross Byrne, Robbie Henshaw.

ITALY: Jayden Hayward; Edoardo Padovani, Luca Mirisi, Carlo Canna, Mattia Bellini; Paolo Garbisi, Marcello Violi; Danilo Fischetti, Luca Bigi, Giosuè Zilochhi; Marco Lazzaroni, Niccolò Cannone; Sebastian Negri, Braam Steyn, Jake Polledri.

Replacements: Gianmarco Lucchesi, Simone Ferrari , Pietro Ceccarelli, David Sisi, Johan Meyer, Maxime Mbanda, Callum Braley, Federico Mori.

Referee: Matthew Carley (England).

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