George Hook: Inconsistent Keatley could cost Ireland
Battle awaits in the Eternal City. Ireland begin the defence of their Six Nations title in Rome this afternoon against the team that finished bottom of the table last year, but to dismiss this Italian job as a foregone conclusion would be to do Jacques Brunel and his squad a huge disservice.
A lot has changed since these sides met in Dublin 12 months ago. It is a reasonable argument that Ireland look weaker in key positions, while the Italians have grown in strength.
For only the second time in 16 years, Ireland face into a Six Nations match without Brian O'Driscoll in the centre.
The Championship's top try scorer inspired his team to victory in his final home game against Italy at the Aviva last year. This afternoon, Jared Payne, winning just his second cap, takes over in the No 13 jersey.
In contrast to O'Driscoll's absence, Italy have the peerless Sergio Parisse back to captain the home side. His presence, along with lineout supremo and all-round enforcer Alessandro Zanni in the back-row, will ensure a biting edge to the Azzurri pack.
Both Parisse and Zanni missed the showdown in Dublin last March, while tighthead Martin Castrogiovanni, who starts at tighthead today, only lasted a few minutes before picking up an injury.
If Jack McGrath wants an examination in the dark arts of the scrum, he should look no further than the Italian centurion.
Keatley's experience at fly-half for Munster this season has undoubtedly swung the decision his way, and his relationship with provincial team-mate Conor Murray should allow for a smooth transition to the pace and intensity of the international game.
But Keatley's erratic form and inconsistent goal-kicking leaves his selection open to question. Where Ian Madigan has missed just three kicks at goal from 28 attempts in the Pro12 since September, a return of almost 90pc, Keatley is languishing down at 15th in the overall list with just a 71pc success rate.
In a game of extremely tight margins and with key personnel missing for Ireland, can Schmidt afford to have an inconsistent goal-kicker in his team?
Madigan has undoubtedly paid a heavy price for the Wolfhounds' poor performance in Cork last Friday. It was a difficult outing for the former Blackrock College player, who struggled to impose himself on the game and kicked poorly out of hand.
Keatley is inexperienced at this level but will never have a better chance to prove his worth to the Ireland coach. One wonders if he is up to the task.
Schmidt has opted to shuffle his back-row and omitted Jamie Heaslip from the match-day squad. Reports from the Ireland camp suggest Heaslip is fit to play, but Schmidt has taken the decision to rest the Leinster captain ahead of the visit of France next week.
It is a gamble that has the potential to backfire, particularly given the strength of the Italians in the back-row.
Jordi Murphy appears to have all the skills necessary for a successful international career, but he is facing the best No 8 in the world this afternoon. One would hope he has a pen and paper ready for the lesson that is to come.
The collective absences of O'Driscoll, Sexton and Heaslip create a worrying void in the Ireland team. The sum total of experience among their replacements does not add up to 10 caps.
In a hostile atmosphere, with a Championship defence on the line and the Italians desperate for revenge, one has to question whether the three incumbents can raise their game to the standard required.
The key to victory for Ireland will come at the set-piece. Parisse and Zanni are masters in the art of spoiling opposition throws in the lineout. Rory Best and Paul O'Connell must highlight where that threat lies and keep the ball away from Italy's dangermen.
Mike Ross, dropped at Leinster for the final two Champions Cup pool games, has the opportunity to prove Matt O'Connor wrong in the scrum.
But again, one wonders why Schmidt has not sided with the form selection in Martin Moore. Ross has clearly been picked for his experience.
Ireland, as defending champions and with sights set on back-to-back titles, are in must-win territory at the first hurdle. Victory will keep a winning momentum intact. Defeat would be nothing short of a disaster.
Italy, in Rome, will be willing and committed from the first whistle, but if Ireland are patient in possession and clinical with kicks at goal, it is difficult to see anything other than an away win.
Bigger tests await the defending champions further down the road, but there is an Italian job to be done today. Schmidt and Ireland have no room for error.