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Friday 18 January 2019

Brennan: We’ll rip up Italian plan

AFTER targeting this game for two years, the Italians have earmarked two key areas where they can hurt us this weekend.

The Azzurri have been inching closer to that elusive victory over Ireland, and a Ronan O'Gara drop goal was all that denied them a first Six Nations victory over us last time out.

In tight-head prop Martin Castrogiovanni and inspirational number eight Sergio Parisse, the Italians have two of the most destructive forwards in world rugby.

Bullish Italian coach Nick Mallett expects Castrogiovanni and his front-row partner in crime Salvatore Perugini to overwhelm Cian Healy and Mike Ross and Parisse and Mauro Bergamasco to negate the influence of the Sean O'Brien, Jamie Heaslip and Stephen Ferris axis.

Mallett may have had a chance of being right this time last year, but the Irish pack has evolved to an extraordinary degree in the past year.

Healy has already come face-to-face with Castrogiovanni for Leinster against the Leicester Tigers in the Heineken Cup and performed admirably and I'm confident he will do so again.

Healy has matured so much in the past nine months it's incredible and I think much of it is down to his Leinster and Ireland front-row colleague Mike Ross.

The solidity Ross brings to the scrum has allowed Healy to grow in confidence to a prop who attacks his opposite number rather than operating a damage limitation exercise.

Another big factor in the front row battle will be the rest period enjoyed by the players.

Easier

The US Eagles’ strong showing against us forced Mallett into playing his strongest pack and Castrogiovanni and co have only five days to recover compared to Healy and Ross who have enjoyed a much easier time since their heroics against Australia.

\[Ian Winterton\]Sergio Parisse will have been dreaming about this game for the past two

years and will bring an extraordinary amount of passion and emotion to the table this weekend.

The Italian skipper has been going to war against Ireland for many years but the Irish back-row now boasts the enviable artillery of Heaslip, O'Brien and Ferris.

We have been lucky enough to produce the likes of Fergus Slattery, Nigel Carr and Alan Quinlan but this is the finest back-row we have ever assembled and the Italian skipper won't have met physicality like it in the Six Nations.

The Italians definitely have a heavier and more unified pack than the Aussies and the challenge for the Irish scrum will be greater.

Mallett also likes his team to use lineout drives but will be concerned by the fact that the Americans managed to steal five yesterday and Paul O'Connell and Donncha O'Callaghan can have a major influence on this game if they compete in the lineout.

The out-half debate continues to rage and despite the pressure on Declan Kidney to change tactics, I expect Jonathan Sexton to start again.

O'Gara was impressive against the Russians, but \[Ian Winterton\]his forward pack constantly on the front foot and an out-half has to impress in those circumstances. Barnhall could have beaten the Russian Bears last weekend.Sexton revels in the physical exchanges and the Italians will target the number 10 channel if O'Gara occupies it and the Cork man knows that he is weaker defensively.

Having O'Gara's experience and ability to close out a game as he did in Rome this year in the Six Nations could also be crucial and his substitute role is very important to us\[Ian Winterton\] going forward.

There have been legitimate doubts over Sexton's goal-kicking and rightly so, but this weekend's game is in Dunedin where the roof should be closed and the conditions more conducive to accurate placed kicks.

I have no doubt that Ireland are bound for the quarter-final and beyond – another big question will be posed this weekend, but we have all the answers.

Meanwhile, I have to mention the unbelievable Irish support over here. We drove seven hours from Rotorua to Wellington on Monday and the convoy of Irish supporters on the road was incredible.

Hiace vans coloured green, white and gold and camper vans with tricolours flying from them are everywhere.

The only team with more support are the All-Blacks.

Here's hoping we meet them in the final.

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