Five talking points ahead of Ireland's must-win showdown with Italy
Ireland host Italy in Dublin on Saturday still seeking their first RBS 6 Nations win of the campaign at the fourth time of asking.
Here,we examine five key talking points ahead of the crucial Aviva Stadium clash.
SHOULD YOUTH HAVE GOT ITS CHANCE?
Has Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt wasted a prime chance to blood young talent for the future, prioritising a first victory in five matches instead? Ireland boss Schmidt insisted reverting to tried-and-tested partnerships to face Italy was not "overly conservative". The head coach resisted the temptation to move the fit-again Jared Payne to full-back in order to hand Stuart McCloskey another chance to impress in the centres.
Ulster battering ram McCloskey fared well on his debut in 21-10 defeat to England at Twickenham, but was only parachuted in due to a hamstring injury to Payne. Schmidt rushed Payne back at the first opportunity to face Italy then, turning down the chance to experiment and build for the future. Hosting Six Nations strugglers Italy ought to be Test match rugby's prime opportunity to blood young or inexperienced talent. Instead Schmidt has set out his stall purely to chase victory.
IF IRELAND LOSE WILL SCHMIDT BE UNDER PRESSURE?
Ireland have only ever lost once to Italy in Dublin, in 1997, but Schmidt's men have not tasted victory since the group stages of the autumn's World Cup. Victories over Italy and Scotland are imperative, to close a Six Nations where Ireland have slipped from two-time champions to also-rans. Schmidt would doubtless fall under heavy scrutiny should Ireland slip to the ignominy of home defeat to the Azzurri, but his Irish paymasters would surely not weigh up wielding the axe. Schmidt is contracted until 2017, Ireland have only just brought in Andy Farrell as defence coach, and would surely want to maintain continuity.
With a host of injuries and the retirement of talismanic captain Paul O'Connell, Ireland were always likely to struggle in this Six Nations, despite entering the tournament as two-time champions. Schmidt targeted a mid-table finish as a reasonable return ahead of the tournament, and his paymasters will most likely concur if Ireland realise that return, with wins over Italy and Scotland.
WILL JOSH BE AN IRELAND FLIER?
Can Josh Van der Flier lay a real marker for a strong Test match future? Leinster's young gun flanker Van der Flier is Ireland's long-term option at openside flanker. The 22-year-old has come of age this season, as a combative continuity man capable of causing opponents real headaches at the breakdown. Van der Flier stole his chance in the 21-10 defeat to England due to Sean O'Brien's hamstring problem, and will start once more against Italy. While O'Brien is clearly Ireland's premier seven, Van der Flier is a far more traditional scavenging openside, and can now start the business of proving his worth for Schmidt's squad. When the likes of Peter O'Mahony, O'Brien and even back-five forward Iain Henderson return to fitness, the back-row ranks could become claustrophobic, but Ireland expect Van der Flier to stay the course.
CAN ITALY JUSTIFY SIX NATIONS STATUS?
The likes of Georgia and Romania have been clamouring for a two-tier Six Nations for several years now. And every campaign where Italy fail to trouble the top-end of the table only serves to increase those calls. Plenty of the Italians have themselves accepted the Six Nations may benefit from promotion and relegation in future, but for now the Azzurri enjoy no threat to their status among Europe's elite.
Six Nations organisers insist there is no reason to fix a tournament that is not broken, while those on the outside looking in disagree. The only way for Italy to end the argument is to start winning, and regularly.
WILL ITALY'S HALF-BACKS COPE AGAINST IRELAND'S?
Edoardo Padovani could hardly have hoped for a more intimidating full Test debut at fly-half, despite Ireland's recent troubles in failing to win since the World Cup. The Zebre playmaker will reprise his provincial partnership with scrum-half Guglielmo Palazzani, with the pair boasting just 20 caps between them. British and Irish Lions pair Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton remain Europe's top Test half-back duo, leaving the Italians up against it to control the game through field position and territory.
Italy have battled to expand their approach in this year's Six Nations but still pitch up in Dublin with three defeats from three matches. The visitors will need their green half-backs to produce simple, error-free rugby in order to pull off a shock victory.