herald

Wednesday 13 December 2017

Blunted Italians ripe for mauling

Irish firmly in driving seat with Azzurri pack looking less powerful proposition

It is the same scenario every two years. It always starts with numbers one to three when Italy come to Dublin town. Meet them head on at the scrum, anchor their maul and it makes mission probable so much more comfortable.

Cian Healy, Rory Best and Mike Ross would have trawled through their research this week to uncover the tricks of the trade favoured by coach Jacques Brunel's front three.

They didn't have to look too far. The entire Benetton Treviso front row of Michele Rizzo (2), Lorenzo Ghiraldini (43) and Lorenzo Cittadini (10) hold an unintimidating 55 international caps between them and are regular opponents in the PRO12 League.

Without a shadow of a doubt, it is the absence of one above all others, Martin Castrogiovanni, with a broken rib, which will lighten the load at engagement time.

There was a definite crumbling of the Italy scrum against England when Castrogiovanni was forced from the Stadio Olimpico field two weeks ago.

In addition, Ireland captain Paul O'Connell has admitted to being "surprised" at the number of changes made to the Italy side from the World Cup, especially in the front five.



Battle

"One that interests me is the return of former Italian captain Marco Bortolami, who will partner Quintin Geldenhuys in the second row. He is a fine player, who I have enjoyed many a battle against over the years," noted O'Connell.

"But, I was a little surprised that Cornelius van Zyl lost out. Munster struggled against him earlier in the season. He ran the Cheetahs lineout very successfully when in South Africa."

Italy coach Brunel made his reputation at the very epicentre of the hard man's game in Perpignan where he won the French Championship in 2009 and was just beaten by Joe Schmidt's Clermont-Auvergne in 2010.

The very foundation of Perpignan rugby is a granite forward pack that is equally at home at scrum or maul. Brunel preferred the direct route to points rather than any 'fancy dan' plays out the back.

It is strange then that he has moved away from his roots towards a more expansive approach to international rugby.

While he must be applauded for his ingenuity, the simple facts are that the scrum, maul and lineout must thrive for Italy to hold any chance of beating Ireland in the Six Nations for the first time.

The withdrawal of Castrogiovanni and the demotion of Cornelius van Zyl's lineout intellect make this an even more remote possibility.

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