Five things to expect from Italy in Six Nations opener
Ireland's defence of their Six Nations crown begins in Rome tomorrow and here are five things we can expect from Jacques Brunel's Azzurri.
Italy will be up for this in a big way
Jack McGrath spoke of the "unbelievable passion" of the Italians playing at home with special pride put in their scrums and mauls. The Stadio Olimpico will be rocking and the home fans will look to the last visit of Ireland as encouragement for an opening-day victory.
The power of the Azzurri at home is a requirement with such a dismal away record – they have one win on the road in 15 years– and after two losses at home in last year's championship, will be hoping to catch the champions cold.
Backs with a bang
Perhaps only South Africa and Argentina compare to the Italians when it comes to placing such stock in the set piece and tight exchanges. Admittedly a lot of this had to do with the fact that a blunt backline offered little chance of success so responsibility rested primarily on the brutish pack.
That has changed considerably under Jacques Brunel and Simon Zebo mentioned the threat of Michele Campagnaro and Leonardo Sarto in particular in camp this week. Campagnaro burst onto the scene with two tries in the opening game last year against Wales while Sarto scored at the Aviva in the last meeting between the sides.
Andrea Masi, the 2011 Six Nations Player of the Year, is an efficient operator at full-back while the latest to try his hand at out-half is Kiwi Kelly Haimona. If he can unleash his backline, Joe Schmidt's defensive strategies will be tested out wide as well as around the fringes.
Sergio Parisse and Martin Castrogiovanni will be licking their lips
A pack shorn of the services of Cian Healy and Jamie Heaslip will travel to Rome to take on a grizzly front eight looking to set down a marker in front of the home supporters.
Jack McGrath will win his 13th cap and the international rookie will come up against one of the most charismatic figues in the game in Martin Castrogiovanni.
The Toulon prop, with 107 games under his belt, will relish taking such an inexperienced player at Test level, though McGrath proved against South Africa that he can hold his own with the best.
Jamie Heaslip's injury rules out another duel with Sergio Parisse, two of the most consistent number 8s over the last six or seven years. Jordi Murphy will have to put the shackles on the inspirational Italian captain and with question marks over Sean O'Brien's fitness, the Roman crowd will be pinning their hopes on Parisse taking advantage of the circumstances.
Can Kelly get the better of Keatley?
What a day for both out-halves. At 28, Kelly Haimona is a year older than the Munster out-half. Both have just three caps to their name and both will make their Six Nations bow.
Schmidt has decided to go with Keatley's game management over Ian Madigan's attacking instincts and the coach has placed great trust in the Sutton native.
He will be under more pressure as Italy have always struggled in the professional era at half-back and particularly at 10. No-one has come close to filling Diego Dominguez's boots, so in may ways, there is little expectation on the Kiwi.
In what could be a day for the forwards, Keatley will look for field position, territory and accuracy from the tee and hope to exploit any opportunities when they arise.
Target Irish midfield
With 21 international caps between them, Michele Campagnaro and Luca Morisi are far from the most experienced midfield pairing in world rugby, but they certainly have the edge in that department than their Irish counterparts.
Joe Schmidt has reverted back to the centre pairing that began against Australia in Jared Payne and Robbie Henshaw. That was the only time they have played together and due to injury remains Payne's only appearance for Ireland.
Campagnaro showed his finishing skills against the Welsh last year and with Henshaw finding his feet at 12 and the Kiwi attempting to replace a certain Brian O'Driscoll at outside centre, this could provide opportunities for attack.
Similar to the scrum, Jacques Brunel will look to exploit the inexperienced pair by putting the visitors on the back foot and asking uncomfortable defensive questions.