Irish boss risking untried combinations in a bid to make positive statement
It may not have a direct bearing on today's outcome in Rome, but Thursday's IRFU announcement of a "player contract-signing hat-trick" is hugely significant as a springboard to the Six Nations and the World Cup.
These are tough economic times, when rational decision-making goes out the window, but in this instance, both the IRFU and the three high-profile players concerned -- Brian O'Driscoll, Jamie Heaslip and Jonathan Sexton -- have exercised great common sense in hitting common ground.
It sends out a positive message to young players making their way in the professional game and, just as importantly, it keeps our rugby stars central to the communities in which they live.
The day we go down the soccer route (all our stars in foreign isolation) is the day we give up this great game forever. Today's professional elite may be pampered from match to match, but by and large, they have remained grounded. None more so than O'Driscoll, the greatest player to have donned an Irish jersey.
IRFU CEO Philip Browne was spot on when highlighting the significance of the skipper's two-year contract.
O'Driscoll epitomises everything good about the game in Ireland at the highest level in his day-to-day dealings. He is the consummate role model in how he prepares and in how he conducts himself on the field and off.
This afternoon, you know he will be as meticulously prepared and as fired up as ever. So, the message is clear and unambiguous -- with the appropriate structures in place, the time has come to do the business.
Today we are vulnerable, not because of injury (and yes we do have many), not because the Italians have done anything exceptional (be it in Magners League, Heineken Cup or Autumn Internationals), but for the simple reason that the first international after every break is a journey into the unknown.
The players know what they want to do; they know they have the wherewithal to do it, but in the opening game, whether it is Six Nations or World Cup, uncertainty is a key element to the build-up. To that end, winning today is everything and if that means winning ugly then so be it.
Italy coach Nick Mallett will have targeted this game from a long way out as winnable. For sure the kitchen sink and just about everything else will be coming our way. We must front up for what is sure to be an uneasy 80-minute ride.
It would be wonderful if we could reproduce the all-singing, all-dancing try-scoring extravaganza of Rome 2007.
However, we are realistic enough to expect a physical lambasting. The Italians may not win as often as they would like, but up front they don't do the talk, only the walk.
We field a new and untried front-row in Cian Healy, Rory Best and Mike Ross. It is the best available and it is critical that they front up. Deliver solidity against Salvatore Perugini, Leonardo Ghiraldini and Martin Castrogiovanni and we are in business. Failure to do so and the biennial dogfight is under way, only this time it could extend beyond the hour --and that could spell danger.
While I differed with Declan Kidney in two areas of his chosen team -- lock and full-back -- I have no problem whatsoever with his choices. Leo Cullen would have been my preferred partner, on form, for Paul O'Connell, but, equally, I understand fully the horses-for-courses rationale behind the Munster pairing. The onus is on Donncha O'Callaghan to deliver and that is no bad thing. The heat is on.
At full-back the 'stop gap' approach seemed the way to go, with Gavin Duffy (despite injury) the only one of the three alternatives playing consistently in the position, but Kidney has chosen to go with attacking potential and I wholeheartedly applaud him for that.
I am unashamedly of like mind and have no issue whatsoever with Fergus McFadden -- most deservedly, on form -- coming in for his first cap on the right wing, leaving Keith Earls on the left and Luke Fitzgerald at full-back. It would be hypocritical of me in the extreme to suggest anything different.
And, lest I need reminding of this, a recent email from a Leinster supporter put me firmly in my place. The lead-in was kind, but invariably we came to the bottom line, which read: "The over-riding factor, now that you are in your 50s (ouch), is one of complete conservatism." My crime? "Your selection of Earls and Fitzgerald ahead of McFadden."
So, just to set the record straight, the back three today, much like the front-row, is an untried but measured combination. It is high risk, but far be it for me to deride it in any way.
On the contrary I am delighted with Kidney's choice, because I did think he might be more conservative with his full-back, but I admire him for sticking with his attacking principles.
I cannot think of a more exciting prospect than the Irish back three cutting loose this afternoon. But given Fitzgerald's lack of game-time in the position, it is high risk.
All three players excite and the day I lose perspective on that criterion is the day I hang up the pen alongside the boots.
Backs coach Alan Gaffney has it right when he talks of the need to balance the modern game of counter-attacking opportunities with a "bit of sanity." Expect him to be imparting that message forcibly.
I may be in the minority here, but I actually don't care how we do it as long as we win.
Yes, in an ideal world, win comfortably, playing well in Rome and the springboard is even better for the visit of the French to Dublin in eight days' time.
To be fair to Mallett, he is as unsure about his charges at the first time of asking as is Kidney. Either way, I will be very surprised if it is a Roman romp for the visitors.
However, we have enough talent in all the right areas and a special one in Sean O'Brien to match the Azzurri where it still matters most -- the dynamic Leinster back-row fronting up to the brilliant home No 8 Sergio Parisse will be worth the admission price alone.
It may be the first match of the calendar year, but there is a hell of a lot resting on a winning start. It's not the end of the world if we don't triumph, but given the context, it would not be far from it.
Take Ireland by 10.