Irish pack poised to tackle 'Castro' dictatorship
Ireland's Grand Slam heroes go into the Six Nations carrying a target on the crest, with their rivals assiduously poring over DVD footage of Declan Kidney's side to identify potential weaknesses.
With an 11-game unbeaten record that stretches back to November 2008 and a squad packed with experience, ability and European achievement, weak areas are few and far between, but one that has unquestionably been singled out by Ireland's Six Nations opponents is their scrum.
They will have noted the early wobbles against Australia and South Africa and Munster's recent difficulties against Northampton when John Hayes packed down at tight-head. Saturday's opponents, Italy, are without omnipotent figurehead Sergio Parisse and are short on international class in many departments -- notably the three-quarter line -- but the scrum is one facet of their play where Nick Mallett's side have shown they are a match for any team in the world.
Their scrummaging superiority over the All Blacks at the San Siro last November was so pronounced that it sparked a national debate in New Zealand.
Mallett has made no secret of the fact that the Italians will be going after Cian Healy, Jerry Flannery and Hayes on Saturday and when their team is named today, the focus of their efforts is expected to be celebrated tight-head Martin Castrogiovanni.
He knows Ireland well, having faced the green jersey eight times since making his debut as a 20-year-old on the 2002 tour to New Zealand. But, what do we know about 'Castro'?
Born in Argentina of Italian heritage, his early sporting endeavours were on the basketball court because his mother "did not want me to play rugby" and he persevered with that sport until an incident with a referee, which he describes as "part punch, part push", forced his switch to rugby.
Over the course of 62 internationals, Castrogiovanni has established his reputation as one of the foremost scrummaging tight-heads in the game with the size (6'2'' and nearly 19 stone) and technique to terrorise loose-heads around the globe.
He joined Leicester from Calvisano in 2006, winning the Premiership Player of the Year award in his first season and, with a bristling beard and colourful personality, the 28-year-old has become a cult figure around the town. All told, Castrogiovanni represents a daunting proposition for Ireland's plans to secure a solid platform at scrum time, but there are sources of comfort for the Irish pack.
First, there was Healy's battling display in Edinburgh during Leinster's Heineken Cup final win over the Tigers last year, an experience which will have given the young loose-head invaluable knowledge for Saturday's showdown.
Secondly, there is Marcus Horan's display in Rome a few months previously. Horan went into that clash publicly identified as a major weakness, with Castrogiovanni telling Ireland's loose-head at the first scrum that he was "in for a long day".
It didn't pan out that way. Horan, Flannery and Hayes held their own in the Stadio Flaminio and forwards coach Gert Smal will be looking for a repeat of that scrummaging performance on Saturday.
And then there is the emergence of Dan Cole at Leicester. Cole got his chance with the Tigers due to Castrogiovanni's absence through injury and made such an impression that he has kept the Italian international out of the side while propelling himself into the England 22 for Saturday's meeting with Wales. Just a hint that Castrogiovanni is not at the level he once was.
But that is a big assumption for Ireland to make and any team coached by Kidney does not make such mistakes. Ireland will have a scrummaging plan on Saturday but they will know that if it falls any way short, this set-piece battle could quickly become a 'Castro' dictatorship.