Eddie O'Sullivan: Nothing to fear
Expect Groundhog Day in Rome as Italy will do what they always do – try to rough up the visitors. Ireland should do what they always do – win
Published 05/02/2011 | 05:00
Albert Einstein defined insanity as "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results". He had a point. It would be easy to ramble off into the annual diatribe now about Italy being a banana skin at the start of every Six Nations tournament.
Or about the threat presented by their scrum, their physicality in contact and how the Roman crowd will get behind the team with their chants of "Italia, Italia, Italia" like oles at a bullfight.
But you know what? None of this should matter. I find it difficult to see any way that Ireland will be defeated at the Stadio Flaminio today. It has never happened before in a competitive match and there's nothing to suggest that, this time, things will be any different.
True, the big Irish talking point is probably the number of players missing. Declan Kidney's selection almost looks like one with the 2013 Lions tour in mind, given the relative inexperience of so many. But Ireland should still do what they've always done in Rome -- win.
Three of the last four Italian coaches have tried to move Italy on from the fiercely pragmatic style that has traditionally been their preference -- a style that relies essentially on physical intimidation. Brad Johnstone, John Kirwan and Nick Mallett all come from the southern hemisphere and understand that one-dimensional attrition only gets you so far.
Trouble is the Latin temperament isn't renowned for patience and, without the buffer of results, many supporters of the Azzurri have responded as if served up sushi in a pasta restaurant.
They warmed easier to the ways of Mallett's predecessor, Pierre Berbizier, who was never much taken with this idea of reinvention. Under the former French scrum-half, Italy looked slightly better equipped to keep scorelines down. But, in evolutionary terms, they were running to stand still.
All of which presents Mallett with an interesting conundrum today.
Just two weeks ago, the Italian Rugby Federation announced that current Perpignan coach, Jacques Brunel, would take over as their new national supremo after this autumn's World Cup. As statements of intent go, this sounded like a reinvestment in the 'Berbizieresque' philosophy.
Unfortunately, somebody neglected to copy the news to Mallett and he came out swinging, stating categorically that he wished to remain on as Italy's coach beyond September. He did, mind you, add an intriguing caveat. "If we have a bad Six Nations, if I don't achieve good results, it's normal that the federation will want to look elsewhere," he said.
For an experienced operator, I found this statement bizarre. He has effectively handed the Italian federation the stiletto they might need to terminate their relationship after the World Cup.
Mallett is reported to have the support of the players, but Kirwan once told me that the Italian federation's benchmark for success in the Six Nations is one, if not two, wins. That benchmark certainly won't soften now that they have two teams playing in the Magners League so, if Italy don't deliver in this championship, I'd hazard a guess that player sentiment won't amount to a hill of beans.
What does Mallett do then? Does he press the panic button and retreat to the coaching manual favoured by Berbizier, or does he persist with the more ambitious run-and-gun philosophy?
I suspect that the pragmatist in Mallett might just slip into self-preservation mode on this occasion and deem discretion the better part of valour. But a return to Italy's traditional, route-one game-plan, won't make any profound difference to results. What it will do is keep opposition scorelines down.
People can parrot on about the power of Italy's scrum, but they were doing the same last year and it didn't make a whit of difference at Croke Park.
This has undoubtedly been an area of concern for Ireland and the selection of Mike Ross is an effort to address it. But my guess is that, unless there is a preponderance of scrums in today's game and Ireland go into total meltdown in that department, Italy's advantage here will -- largely -- be irrelevant.
More significant surely is the fact that Mallett must be losing sleep over issues at half-back where, frankly, Italy's problems are monumental.
Not since the halcyon days of Alessandro Troncon and Diego Dominguez have the Italians had stability here. Those two could manage Test matches like vintage poker players and Dominguez had an ability to slot penalties and drop-goals from 50 metres with his eyes closed.
Italy have been through a procession of nines and 10s since, with multiple false dawns for the likes of Paul Griffen, Pietro Travagli and Simon Picone at scrum-half and an even more wildly revolving door at fly-half with Rima Wakarua, Roland de Marigny, Luciano Orquera, Ramiro Pez, Andrea Scanavacca and Andrea Marcato all getting a spin at the tiller.
Back in 2008 at Croke Park, Mallett even ran with the talented centre Andrea Masi at 10 and -- most infamously -- gambled with Mauro Bergamasco at scrum-half the following season. Two experiments, two car wrecks.
Those decisions raised concerns about Mallett's judgment as an international coach, concerns that still linger in Italy today.
So with Edoardo Gori and Kristopher Burton, who have amassed a grand total of six caps between them, starting today in Rome, Italy are extremely vulnerable. Going in to battle in the Six Nations with untried half-backs is like sending Columbus off in search of America without the benefit of a compass.
When you consider that Ireland have Tomas O'Leary and Jonny Sexton controlling the game, with Eoin Reddan and Ronan O'Gara available as back-up, you begin to realise the enormity of the task facing Mallett's team today. Hence my suspicion that Italy will return to a very basic game-plan, leaning heavily on the strength of its pack, especially with Sergio Parisse, their undisputed talisman, back at No 8.
So, most probably, they will play to caricature and attack Ireland today like mad dogs in a meat house. And Troncon, now their assistant coach, will prowl the whitewash like a lion waiting to get at the Christians.
But Ireland will do what they have always done. They will keep their heads during the onslaught and at some point (usually about 10 minutes before half-time) strike with a precision that leaves Italy hanging on by their fingernails for the half-time whistle.
The stress pressing down on Mallett today convinces me more than ever that there can be no element of surprise for Ireland in Rome. The chips are simply loaded in our favour.
Italy look set to be obedient to their history and, as Einstein knew, that's just not conducive to change. Expect Groundhog Day in the Eternal City.