Hand of history on eternal city
O'Driscoll wary as 'improved' hosts bid for first Irish triumph
IT'S Italy, it's Rome and just as guaranteed as the 'Italian Job' headlines that will dominate coverage of this afternoon's Six Nations encounter (2.30) are the gladiatorial references that have peppered the week.
Fair enough -- when in Rome and all that -- and Ireland captain Brian O'Driscoll caught the mood yesterday when he paraphrased the memorable "not yet, not yet" line from Ridley Scott's blockbuster 'Gladiator'.
"They've definitely improved from my earliest memories. These days teams give them the same respect as they did back then but it's a different type of respect. It's inevitable that at some stage Italy will beat us in a Six Nations game -- let's just hope it's not tomorrow," said O'Driscoll, who is starting his 12th Six Nations campaign.
"Now there's a realisation that, genuinely, if you don't play properly for 80 minutes they can turn you over. In the past you felt as though you might have the upper hand in the last quarter of the game.
"If you were ahead of them by then you could pull away in that section of the game, but that definitely hasn't been the case in the last couple of years. They've managed to stay with teams an awful lot longer. They've been hugely impressive. Looking at some of the clips from their November series, they're not just physical but can play some rugby too. They put teams likes Australia under pressure at times."
Italy used their scrum to put the Wallabies under intense pressure in that clash, and although they were ultimately unable to down Robbie Deans' side, O'Driscoll knows their forwards will fancy their chances against the Irish in front of their home supporters.
"The Stadio Flaminio is not as big as a lot of other international stadia, but it's a nice place to play," he said.
"As we discovered two years ago, if Italy start well then the crowd get behind them. There's an element of the French there in that respect, so it's all about trying to silence the crowd."
His counterpart Sergio Parisse, their world-class No 8 who has recovered from injury to lead his team out this afternoon, wants his men to see more to Italy's game than merely forward grunt and desire.
"We're working very hard as a group, leaving everything on the pitch every time we go onto it," said the Italian captain. "I can't ever ask for more from my team, they always show up and I'm proud of them. But I hope we play with intelligence tomorrow, we know that courage, desire and grit aren't enough at this level."
Meanwhile, Italy coach Nick Mallett called on Treviso and Aironi, the country's two professional franchises who joined the Magners League this season, to help the national team by favouring Italy-qualified players over overseas signings.
"The franchises should play players who can be interesting for the national team; we don't have many chances to see our players but the Celtic League is the ideal way," said the South African.
"It's not my responsibility to tell their coaches who to pick, because they have their own responsiblities, but the franchises and the federation have to work much closer together."
Mallett added that he expected Ireland to come at Italy in every aspect of attack and put the onus on his players to stand up to the challenge.
"They have a very good kicking game, a good scrum-half and fly-half, they're strong in every area and don't have any real weaknesses; we've got to be ready to defend well in all areas."
'Gladiator' was released in 2000, the year the Six Nations began following Italy's introduction. It was also the year O'Driscoll made his Six Nations debut and in the 50 tournament matches he has played since, he has never tasted defeat to the Italians.
Mallett's men are showing definite signs of improvement and the Magners League entry will certainly aid the development process, but is it enough to pull off a shock victory? Not yet.