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McLean insists shedding 'easy beat' label crucial to Azzurri's future

It's a seldom publicised desire but a potent fact, nevertheless. Italy's rugby men begin their second decade in the Six Nations Championship this afternoon at Croke Park, determined to bury their image of the tournament's pushovers.

Australian-born full-back Luke McLean says there is a growing urge to end what he calls their "easy beats" reputation. "We are faced by a big job," says the Benetton Treviso player. "But we are still enjoying it. The fact that we have had the same group of players together for a year or more now is a definite advantage, a real step forward. Everyone is getting used to how we all play and therefore we are playing more as a team rather than just individuals.

"We are trying not to be the easy beats now, we don't want that reputation any more. We are going to try and change that this year and put out some good performances."

McLean, who will be 23 this year, qualifies through his mother's parents who were both Italian, although his mother's father had to renounce his Italian citizenship so as to buy land in Australia. McLean was eligible for both countries but chose Italy and is one of the most accomplished players in the Italian side.

Yet, the Azzurri has suffered a run of just one win in their last 15 games, with a November victory over Samoa their sole success of 2009. McLean accepts the process of integration to the highest levels of European and indeed world rugby will take some time, but is still impatient for success.

"We conceded a few too many tries last year in the Six Nations but as the group has spent more time together, we have got closer to where we want to be."

Perhaps so. But sticking your head in the lion's mouth, which a match against the Grand Slam champions surely represents, is still a fearsome task. Great courage will be required of the Italians at Croke Park today.

To his credit, McLean does not seek to diminish that fact. "This will be a big test for us. We are under pressure to make sure we win for the benefit of Italian rugby's future. We feel we have to give something back to the public this year."

That does not necessarily mean hammering the champions in their own backyard. A sense of realism must prevail.

But the kind of tepid performance which cost them a 50-8 home defeat by France in Rome on the final day of the 2009 Championship is no longer seen as permissible.

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"We didn't turn up that day and we can't afford that sort of performance anymore. Rugby probably isn't even in the top 10 sports in Italy and it never will be if we give any more performances like that. People just won't come back if they see displays of that nature."

Ireland represents a desperately difficult start for the Italians but McLean proposes a positive attitude; for example, what can Italy learn from the Irish today, he asks?

"Ireland are such a good side because they all play together. They might not play flamboyant rugby all the time but they do the simple things right and don't make mistakes. They don't let you into the game much, either. But you have to try and match them and try to contain them, too."

How about targeting the captain, the Irish talisman Brian O'Driscoll? After all, in sports like cricket, the captain often finds himself targeted by an opposition believing that if they climb all over him, they are well on the way to subduing his colleagues, too. McLean shrugs. "You can't do that in rugby, especially against a team like Ireland that has so many good players."

Italy played McLean at out-half last year but he is set to return to his more favoured full-back slot this season. "I am happiest at full-back" he confirms. "I used to be a No 10 as a kid but now enjoy playing No 15."

Such a position is sure to give him a nice, easy ride at Croke Park because he'll only be up against Ireland's Rob Kearney, arguably the No 1 full-back in the world. McLean nodded. "He's certainly one of the best around and he has a complete game. Give him space and he will punish you."

Just another problem for McLean and the Azzurri.

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