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Thursday 14 December 2017

Ireland go with big guns for an Italian shootout

ITALY v IRELAND, STADIO OLIMPICO, tomorrow (2.30) LIVE RTE2

Seán O'Brien
Seán O'Brien

And so it begins again.

Will it be the long journey back into darkness or out into an even brighter light?

This is what makes the Six Nations such a treat. There are too many unknowables, too many variables to forecast with any degree of conviction who will reign supreme.

Ireland coach Joe Schmidt has chosen Jordi Murphy as his number eight in place of the injured Jamie Heaslip.

This is a testament to how Murphy has moved his game on since the turn of the year.

Seán O'Brien has been landed into a back row with another belligerent customer in Peter O'Mahony.

It would seem Ian Madigan and Kieran Marmion have paid the price for their game-management for the Irish Wolfhounds with the former making the bench, the latter losing out to Isaac Boss.

This is one that could be won or lost off the bench as Italy are at their meanest and most threatening on day one at home.

The biggest question revolves around how Ian Keatley will deal with the pressure of being the playmaker at this level.

He has made the necessary progress to convince Schmidt he is ready and the former teacher is the hardest marker out there.

The decision to go with Mike Ross in a heavyweight front five is understandable.

Ireland will have to be robust and ready for the trench warfare that will come from grizzled tight-head Martin Castrogiovanni, hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini and the ravenous hordes.

The battle lines will be drawn early on and Ireland will have to break-even there or it could be a long and painful experience.

Prop Jack McGrath and hooker Rory Best are so much more than set-piece sadists.

GIFTED

The second row of Paul O'Connell and Devin Toner is not an athletic one as the hugely gifted Iain Henderson waits on the bench.

In behind them, Jordi Murphy will be reminded he is not there to take Sergio Parisse on in a one-on-one dual. Not many are capable of doing that and coming out the better for it.

Murphy is a skilled utility back row who offers a wide range of uses. That is why he has played in all three positions for his club.

He will have, on either side of him, the no-nonsense of O'Mahony and the explosiveness of Sean O'Brien, for however long he lasts.

Italy: A Masi; L Sarto, M Campagnaro, L Morisi, L McLean; K Haimona, E Gori; M Aguero, L Ghiraldini, M Castrogiovanni, J Furno, G Biagi, A Zanni, F Minto, S Parisse (capt).

Ireland: R Kearney; T Bowe, J Payne, R Henshaw, S Zebo; I Keatley, C Murray; J McGrath, R Best, M Ross, D Toner, P O'Connell (capt), P O'Mahony, S O'Brien, J Murphy.

Verdict: Ireland

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