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Heaslip expects Italy backlash

Jamie Heaslip fears embittered Italy will be galvanised by the failure of their clubs to join the Magners League when they face Ireland on Saturday.

The Italian Rugby Federation (FIR) are furious after talks over their clubs' admission into the Celtic competition broke down because of an inability to meet the league's financial demands.

The addition of two Italian teams into the tournament was seen as a crucial step in enabling the Azzurri, often the Six Nations whipping boys, to become more competitive.

But the FIR felt they were being deliberately priced out of negotiations, leading to doomsday predictions over the future of their domestic game.

Smarting from the perceived injustice, Italy's first chance to exact revenge will be against Ireland at Croke Park.

Heaslip, Leinster's world player of the year nominee last year, admits the political backdrop to the championship opener could have repercussions for Ireland on the pitch.

"Italy are a class outfit and they might feel they have something to prove," Heaslip said. "They might have something against the Irish team now that Italy didn't get the nod for the Magners League.

"We'll have to bring our 'A game' anyway because that's the way this championship has gone over the past couple of years. We play against the Italian players in the Heineken Cup -- they're big and they bash you about.

With momentum considered key to any Six Nations title charge, Ireland have been provided with the kindest possible opener against a side widely tipped to finish bottom.

Bookmakers may have installed France as tournament favourites, but Declan Kidney's Grand Slam champions remain the key scalp for pretenders to the throne.

Ireland ended last year unbeaten, beating world champions South Africa in the process, but Heaslip denies there is an extra spring in their step.

"We've set the bar high for ourselves and we're concerned about meeting that standard we've set."

Heaslip will be joined in the back-row by Leinster colleague Kevin McLaughlin, who will be making his Test debut after Stephen Ferris was ruled out with a knee injury.

McLaughlin questioned his future in the sport a year ago after several operations -- Leinster coach Michael Cheika told him he was drinking at the last-chance saloon -- but a standout season has revived his fortunes.

"I had a feeling Kevin was going to be selected. I'm happy for him, he deserves it as he's been playing some great rugby this season," said Heaslip.

Tomas O'Leary is adamant Grand Slam champions Ireland remain grounded despite having completed an unbeaten year, which spanned eight Tests and two friendlies.

"Confidence in the camp is high and there's good morale among the players. We've come in (to the camp) focusing on the challenges ahead.

"We're used to winning and expect to win and we have a happy squad now, which is good. But we know how difficult it is to defend the Grand Slam and complacency will not be an issue."