Italy v Ireland match facts
The scrum: In this space last November, we were banging the drum for Mike Ross (pictured) to be tried out at tight-head but, though he was involved with the squad and a central part of the scrummaging strategy, the call never came. Now that it has, November increasingly looks like an opportunity lost for, no matter how often people compare the Heineken Cup to international rugby, there is a big step up and adjustment to the levels of exposure, hype and pressure.
Ross has the raw materials to cope with Salvatore Perugini and the brief this afternoon is to lock the scrum and provide a platform for Sean O'Brien and the back-line to flourish. Ross is a player who improves the more games he plays and needs to be retained against France next week no matter how long it takes to find his Six Nations feet.
Italy's scrum is their primary strength but, although Ireland may not dominate, they should cope as Cian Healy continues his inexorable progress towards the status of world-class loose-head. The concern is Rory Best at hooker, not because of his scrummaging prowess but rather his recent rib injury and the attention it will attract.
WITH Paul O'Connell back, Ireland can dominate areas where they struggled in November. The Munster captain is a master tactician when it comes to aerial supply and has a fellow obsessive in forwards coach Gert Smal.
We can expect an immediate improvement at restart time, while Italian second-rows Quinton Geldenhuys and Santiago Dellape are meat-and-two-veg operators when it comes to the line-out.
O'Connell (pictured) and Donncha O'Callaghan should have an edge here over their opposite numbers. O'Callaghan needs a big game today after holding off the challenge of the in-form Leo Cullen. However, O'Callaghan is an excellent jumper at two and does not get the credit he deserves for it.
The worry for Ireland is Sergio Parisse. The Italian captain and No 8 is a supreme athlete and a go-to target out of touch.
He gives Italy a third option where Ireland, with a back-row all under 6ft 2ins, do not have an obvious one.
Smal will have worked on this, but while Ireland will have hatched plans to win their own ball at the back, if O'Connell and O'Callaghan pair off against their opposite numbers on Italy's throw, there is no obvious marker for Parisse at the back.
ROMAIN POITE'S presence on the whistle will have set the alarm bells ringing among the Ireland management, especially with four Munster players in the pack, given their problems with the Frenchman in the past.
With Poite on the whistle, there will be plenty of penalties which could keep Italy in the game. The benchmark for success in this regard is a single-figure penalty count and no cards. Munster managed exactly that against London Irish last month, a week after their two-card implosion against Toulon, and Ireland have to maintain clarity of thought in the midst of Italian provocation.
Donncha O'Callaghan (pictured) and Denis Leamy are particularly prone to getting their buttons pushed, and both players need to keep their wits about them in the Stadio Flaminio.
Ireland need to love bomb the ref and turn the other cheek when the Italian grizzlies try and excite a response. Do that and it is the Italians who will become frustrated and have Poite reaching for his pocket, with Jonathan Sexton then getting the opportunity to kick the home side out of the game. Or to put it in Rudyard Kipling terms -- "If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs ... "
ASIDE from the prospect of Ireland finally establishing a solid scrummaging platform, the most intriguing aspect to their Six Nations is their attacking play.
There were glimpses of the fluid off-loading game the players are capable of on last summer's trip to New Zealand and Australia, and it was reproduced in fits and starts last November, most encouragingly in the toughest game against the All Blacks.
But now there needs to be a discernible and consistent attacking style, and judging by his team selection for this opening encounter, that is how Declan Kidney views it also.
Injuries played a part but, by taking a gamble (on rustiness rather than proven quality) with Luke Fitzgerald (pictured) at full-back, with Fergus McFadden and Keith Earls on the wings, Kidney has picked a counter-attacking, off-loading back three.
In midfield, Brian O'Driscoll, Gordon D'Arcy and Jonathan Sexton will look to replicate their scintillating form for Leinster and, if it all comes together, the results could be breathtaking. The caveat is that, for all the attacking potential in the back three, they will also come in for consistent attention from the boot of Italy out-half Kris Burton and his team-mates. Security under the high ball is a must.
AS has been said all week, the Italians are at their most dangerous in the early stages of the championship, when self-belief and enthusiasm are highest. Having two Italian teams in the Magners League will help coherency, although the players are said to be adjusting to the extra workload.
They have set their stall out in predictable fashion with a muscle-bound pack and a kicking out-half in Kris Burton. Declan Kidney (pictured) has had to deal with a number of injuries and picked a team to cope with the physical onslaught, best typified by the selection of Tomas O'Leary at scrum-half. O'Leary is always Kidney's number one and being demoted to the Wolfhounds served the dual purpose of providing game time and the type of psychological prod beloved of the Ireland coach.
The task is to meet fire with fire by fronting up to the Italian pack and, once that challenge is met, open them up with superior back play. Sean O'Brien's contribution is critical to put Ireland on the front foot which means, by association, so is the performance of the tight five. Assuming Ross and Co provide the platform and Ireland handle Poite, then they have the capacity to win with a bit of second-half style. Verdict: Ireland