Slated scrum to show its mettle
Criticised set-piece can make detractors eat their words by laying platform for Ireland's superior backs to tear Italians apart with expansive play
GETTING to grips with the Italians is no easy thing.
Last year, in Rome, a taxi-ride carrying the flower of Irish rugby's fourth estate ended with the unedifying request for a "receiptio sil vous plait", much to the bafflement of the driver.
While those language barriers had no bearing on the result in the Stadio Flaminio the following afternoon, the lost-in-translation factor in the Italian squad ahead of today's Six Nations opener in Croke Park (2.30) is relevant to the margin of Ireland's victory.
In their 2000 Six Nations debut, Italy recorded a famous win over Five Nations title-holders Scotland, a result which suggested they were about to become major players at European rugby's exclusive international table. It has not worked out that way.
In 10 years of Six Nations competition, Italy have lost 43 matches, with six wins and one draw. They have conceded an average of 34 points per game in that time, while their own points per-game average is a paltry 15.
The nature of the game in Italy -- rugby resides way down the sporting pecking-order behind soccer, cycling, Formula One and basketball -- means they have, by necessity, indulged a regular stream of southern hemisphere journeymen in a bid to be competitive.
This situation is compounded by the complications behind their inclusion in a meaningful club competition, as the Italians' low-quality domestic league does not prepare its participants for the rigours of a Heineken Cup campaign, let alone international rugby.
Thus, we have another Italian side peppered with lilting southern hemisphere accents, from Luke McLean and Kaine Robertson in the back three, to the South African-bred second-row of Carlo Del Fava and Quintin Geldenhuys and Josh Sole at blindside flanker.
And the key man behind Nick Mallett's ambitions, out-half Craig Gower. The 31-year-old former Australian rugby league captain is following a well-trodden path from league to union that only tends to allow wingers arrive at their desired destination.
His chances of a successful transition are remote in the extreme but Mallett has faith in him regardless of Gower (who plays his club rugby with Bayonne in France) struggling to come to terms with the language.
That does not bode well for Italy and their playmaker this afternoon and they are far better advised to put their faith in the grunt and work-rate of their front five.
Even before a ball is kicked in anger, the scrum has become a tournament-defining issue for Declan Kidney's Grand Slam champions. In a team that has grown in confidence and ability over the course of an 11-game unbeaten run, the scrum has been identified by each of Ireland's Six Nations opponents as an area where they can be attacked.
Forewarned is forearmed and Gert Smal has been working his forward charges mercilessly in anticipation of the Italian onslaught this afternoon. Although he came under intense early pressure in both the Australia and South Africa games last November, Cian Healy emerged from those experiences with tremendous credit.
Today is another big test for Healy but he has faced down Martin Castrogiovanni before and, while he may come under pressure early on when Ireland have the put-in, you would back the Leinster youngster to find his feet fairly quickly.
Over the course of his 10-year international career, John Hayes has become wearyingly accustomed to question marks being raised over his scrummaging. He will never be, nor has he ever claimed to be, Euan Murray, BJ Botha or Carl Hayman at scrum time, but Hayes is rarely 'screwed' and Ireland would never have achieved what they have over the past decade if they had a tight-head prop who could not scrummage.
Injuries to Stephen Ferris and Donncha O'Callaghan are far from ideal but, with World Cup development in mind, it will be instructive to see how Leo Cullen and Kevin McLaughlin go this afternoon.
Both are excellent players, with Cullen's leadership qualities and all-round nous a valuable boon for a match that promises to be physical and messy. We can expect to see McLaughlin used regularly at line-out time and if he carries on the ball-carrying form he has shown for Leinster, the flanker will be off to an encouraging international start.
Both No 8 Jamie Heaslip and scrum-half Tomas O'Leary need a solid scrum platform to be at their most effective but both players are several levels above their Italian counterparts -- particularly with Sergio Parisse ruled out with injury.
Ronan O'Gara is back at out-half to direct the orchestra and 10 years of experience have taught him exactly how to play the Italians -- put them on the back foot with the boot and, when ready, rip them apart with flat passes on the gainline.
If the scrum is the dominant theme of today's encounter, the disparity in class between the backlines emphasises the extent of Ireland's superiority. After grinding their way to the Grand Slam last year, we saw the shackles loosened in November and in Gordon D'Arcy, Brian O'Driscoll, Andrew Trimble, Tommy Bowe and Rob Kearney, Ireland have the attacking ability to maximise their new expansionist policy. Factor in Les Kiss' defensive system which has been a cornerstone of Ireland's success, and it is impossible to see beyond a comprehensive home win today.
It will require plenty of close-quarter scrapping in the early exchanges and it would not be a surprise if there was only a score in it after half an hour. However, once Ireland establish a platform, they can open up and tear the Italians apart, leading to rueful mutterings from Gower and Co in whatever language they feel best suits the occasion.