By Ed Elliot, PA, Dublin
Ireland head coach Andy Farrell admits resurgent Italy pose a “serious threat” to his side’s aspirations of Six Nations glory.
The world’s top-ranked nation head to Rome in title-winning form on the back of resounding bonus-point wins over Wales and France but wary of coming unstuck.
While Italy have been perennial wooden spoon winners, they recorded statement wins over the Welsh and Australia in 2022 before giving reigning Grand Slam champions France a major scare in a 29-24 defeat at the start of this year’s championship.
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Farrell believes the Azzurri, whose only Six Nations success over the Irish came a decade ago, now have sufficient talent to supplement their passion and is braced for a tricky trip to Stadio Olimpico.
“We’ve full respect for Italy,” he said.
“Italy are obviously chasing that win at home and it’s a big scalp, so we know the emotion that they’ve always had, but the skill that they’ve put in with that now makes them a serious threat to us.
“We’re aware of that, and our preparation says so. There’s a realisation of what we’re up against this week and it’ll be a tough one.”
Farrell has made six changes for the visit to the Italian capital, including handing maiden starts in the championship to half-back pair Ross Byrne and Craig Casey.
Fly-half Byrne replaces injured captain Johnny Sexton, while scrum-half Casey has been given the nod ahead of Munster team-mate Conor Murray.
Farrell is confident the Test rookies can steer Ireland to victory following encouraging cameos in rounds one and two.
“What’s been impressive for them coming off the bench is they’ve watched the game, they’ve got a feel for the game and they understand how to control what they were trying to achieve,” said Farrell.
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“A little bit of a different dynamic for them, starting the game, but we expect the control that they’ve had. It was the right thing for the right moment and we expect that to be the same from the start of the game.
“We want to obviously take our game to Italy and they’ll be at the forefront of that.”
After facing Kieran Crowley’s side, Ireland continue their campaign against title rivals Scotland on March 12 before finishing at home to England six days later.
Farrell is confident Sexton will have overcome his groin issue in time to feature at Murrayfield and also expects prop Tadhg Furlong and scrum-half Jamison Gibson-Park to be available for their first Test appearances of 2023.