Declan Kidney wary of the staying power of ever-improving Italy
IRELAND coach Declan Kidney insists Italy are no longer easy pickings in the latter stages of matches.
The RBS 6 Nations rivals meet at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday with the Irish eager to resume a campaign that has been inactive since losing to Wales on February 5.
Their last championship encounter with Italy ended with a heart-stopping 13-11 victory at the Stadio Flaminio secured only by Ronan O'Gara's last-minute drop goal.
Kidney believes the Azzurri have benefited from their players' involvement in the RaboDirect PRO12.
"The fact the Italian players have been in the RaboDirect for the last two years has stood them in good stead. Their match fitness has come on an awful lot," the coach said.
"You might not have said it two or three years ago, but at the back of your mind you knew that if you stayed with them for 65-70 minutes, you'd have it over them in the last 10.
"But that certainly isn't the case any more, so it will be an 80-minute Test match.
"A few things ran our way the last time we played them in the World Cup in Dunedin and that can give them some extra motivation."
New Italy coach Jacques Brunel, who has overseen defeats to France and England, is attempting to introduce a more rounded game with less emphasis on forward play.
"Italy are playing with the ball in hand more than last year," said Kidney.
"They're retaining the ball very well and have the physicality to do that.
"They were well ahead of England until they had an unfortunate knockdown that let England back into the game.
"I don't know if they panicked a bit, but they gave away two penalties they shouldn't have done.
"It was a good win for England, but Italy will be disappointed. The margins are so thin at this level.
"If you look at last year's Six Nations we were lucky to pull that one out of the fire at the end with a last-minute drop goal and I don't see Saturday being any different."
Ireland have named an unchanged 22 as they begin a schedule of four fixtures in four weeks, forced by the postponement of their match against France 11 days ago due to freezing conditions in Paris.