Tuesday 26 March 2019

Italian back-row blues add extra obstacle for O'Shea as he seeks elusive Six Nations win

Italy player Sebastian Negri in action during the Guinness Six Nations Championship match between Scotland and Italy at Murrayfield. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
Italy player Sebastian Negri in action during the Guinness Six Nations Championship match between Scotland and Italy at Murrayfield. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

David Kelly in Rome

History tells us in stark terms that for Italy to have any chance of securing only their second success this century against Ireland, a functional back-row is key.

So for Conor O'Shea to lose one key element of his ball-winning trio this week was unfortunate; to lose a second so close to Sunday's kick-off perhaps leads one to seek inevitably disastrous consequences.

Ireland have scored 177 points in their last three Six Nations clashes with Italy; that is more than Italy scored against Ireland in their last 13 meetings in the competition.

With Sergio Parisse, whose wedding to losses still does not undermine his absence, suffering concussion with Stade Francais, Seb Negri's sudden withdrawal from the side on Thursday was the last thing the 48-year-old former Irish full-back O'Shea needed.

Since their introduction to the Six Nations in 2000, Italy have only won 12 Championship Tests in their 20 campaigns. Parisse has been in the team for all but three of those.

And so with O'Shea still awaiting his first success at this level, that he must pitch Zebre duo Maxime Mbanda and Jimmy Tuivaiti into a rejigged back-row (Braam Steyn shifts from seven to eight) severely dents his team's chances, slim as they already were.

Negri suffered a sudden bout of fever on Thursday; his replacements may experience something similar when confronted by Ireland's fervour in the Stadio Olimpico.

Italy have averaged just 8.25 points per match in their last four Six Nations defeats to Ireland at the Stadio Olimpico, while scoring 22 points in their sole win over this period; in contrast, Ireland have averaged 35 points per match in their four wins over this period.

O'Shea talked a good game in the Italian capital today; he simply must.

"We have chosen players who can be 100 per cent physically ready, which is why Seb Negri is not in the line-up," O'Shea said.

"This morning he had a high fever and we need our players to be physically ready.

"We have worked hard on the breakdown, we think it is one of the areas where we can put pressure on Ireland."

Lock Federico Ruzza will start for the first time, winning his 10th cap, with David Sisi dropping to the bench.

Prop Andrea Lovotti comes into the front row for Nicola Quaglio, while hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini takes over the captaincy from Parisse.

Ireland have made scrum changes too but they seem unlikely to weaken them; Italy have been penalised at scrums more than any other team in the 2019 Six Nations - conceding four penalties and three free kicks. Ireland have been penalised just once. 

The only change in the backline sees Tito Tebaldi replace Guglielmo Palazzani in the scrum-half position.

The wonderful story of Ian McKinley will see him mark another appearance against the country of his birth from the bench.

"Last week in Viadana Manda and Tuivaiti played well with Zebre, there is great depth in that area," O'Shea said of the duo's decent shift which troubled Leinster at times; albeit a second string Leinster, not a full bore Irish trio.

"If we can work on the things we can control we can be very competitive against Ireland.”

O'Shea's anxiety to notch a win is obvious.

Italy have lost a record 19 Six Nations Tests in a row stretching back four years to 2015 - they have not won a Six Nations Test in Rome since this fixture in 2013.

"The intensity must always be high,” he says, as his country seek to avoid an 88th defeat in 100 championship games.

“We are on the right track I'm sure, but the results must start to arrive too."

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