The first contender for the title taking to the field will be Eddie O’Sullivan’s Ireland. They’ve blown hot and cold this season, winning comfortably if unimpressively in Wales, losing a heart-breaker to France, walloping England at Croke Park and, most recently, squeezing past Scotland in a barely-deserved win last Saturday. The Stadio Flaminio, while not a fortress as such (ask France), is a tough place to go these days, and in a game Ireland simply cannot afford not to win they will not be handed anything on a plate.
The hosts are without the talismanic Mauro Bergamasco. Flanker, centre, scorer of vital tries, Ireland will be glad he’s banned for this one. All the more so considering that Bergamasco popped up to score the winning try against Wales while filling in at outside-centre for the gifted Gonzalo Canale. Canale’s injury has not healed in time, and the aforementioned duo are replaced by Maurizio Zaffiri and Ezio Galon. It won’t make it easy for the Irish, but things would have been a lot tougher with particularly Bergamasco in the line-up. His brother, Mirco, is fit and will play, and may well be the Italian danger man.
For Ireland, there is good news and bad. Lock Paul O’Connell misses out with a broken thumb and is replaced by Mick O’Driscoll, a nuggety, tough forward who can also play in the back row. Marcus Horan, though, seems to have come through this week’s training safe and sound and will add his mobility from loose-head. In the backs, it’s same as it ever was, with the Leinster back five selected en bloc behind the Munster half-backs. Ronan O’Gara has recovered from Scotland’s cheeky asphyxiation tactic and may yet add to the three tries he has already scored this year, a personal Six Nations best from a player who is improving into arguably the Northern Hemisphere’s most valuable outside half.