ireland v italy six nations | 

New-look Ireland can’t let standards slip as they go in search of Six Nations title

Hugo Keenan and his provincial team-mate Will Connors make their debuts from the start today

Hugo Keenan and his provincial team-mate Will Connors make their debuts from the start today

Ruaidhri O'Connor

IN almost every other circumstance, you only get one chance to make a first impression. Covid-19 has handed Andy Farrell a chance to start all over again with this unique window of opportunity.

Today, his team emerge from their biosecure bubble and go into the clinical emptiness of the Aviva Stadium. The anthems will echo around the four corners of a cathedral bereft of its patrons, the hits will resonate around the empty bucket seats and concrete steps.

Almost eight months since it was suspended due to the spread of the coronavirus through Europe, Ireland take on Italy with a team that looks very different to the one that lost to England in their last fixture.

Much has changed in the months since that defeat at Twickenham. Injury has claimed senior men like Tadhg Furlong and Keith Earls, suspension keeps Iain Henderson out but form has played a big part and Hugo Keenan and Will Connors are examples of players who made the most of lockdown to come out of the traps and earn their spot.

bruise egos

The presence of established players Peter O’Mahony and Robbie Henshaw on the bench is an indication that Farrell is not afraid to bruise egos, but the reliance on half-backs Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton remains as the pair line out together in green for the 60th time.

Given the absences in other departments, their presence will be a reassuring one.

Murray looked good coming out of lockdown, but Munster’s tactical plan against Leinster didn’t do him any favours and he picked up an injury in that semi-final defeat.

Ireland won’t rely on the box-kick to the same extent and assistant coach Mike Catt believes Ireland’s heads-up plan will benefit the No 9.

“Some people really capitalised on this lockdown, some of the older guys, and I think Conor has refound what he’s about,” Catt said.

“Johnny is obviously experienced, his captaincy, how he calms the team down in terms of where we’re going and how we’re doing. The standards we hold, Johnny drives them exceptionally well at training.

Despite a clamour to move on, the coaches are sticking with the experienced men. They’ll need the team to win the physical battle.

Asked what he felt the key lesson from Twickenham was from an attacking perspective, Catt simply said: “You’ve got to win your set-piece. Simple as that.”

This Italy team may not be packed with household names, but they’ve a big tight five and an impressive back-row.

Ireland, meanwhile, are lacking a little in beef and will need to move their opponents around to gain traction.

After their scrum woes against Saracens, Cian Healy and Andrew Porter will be hoping to exert some authority as they return to the Aviva Stadium, while Rob Herring has another chance to nail down the No 2 shirt before Rónan Kelleher comes back fit next week.

Behind them, the combination of Tadhg Beirne and James Ryan is an industrious, mobile one but neither is the kind of big beast one expects to find at this level.

Ryan can run a lineout well and will rack up big numbers in defence and attack, while Beirne is an auxiliary No 6 with bundles of ability.

Without that enforcer, Farrell’s men need to move the ball quickly and attack wider.

CJ Stander and Caelan Doris can take up some of the physical slack, while Will Connors will be tasked with bringing all of his defensive nous and adding to the carrying mix.

If they get the upper hand up front, then Ireland have all the class behind the scrum to engineer the scores they need.

Ten points from their two remaining games earns them the Six Nations title and their mission today is to go to Paris in control of their destiny next week.

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