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‘Ireland out to avoid another nervy Italy meeting’

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Ireland beat Italy 34-20 in Rome last year but it was far from the most convincing performance of the Andy Farrell era
Venue: Aviva Stadium, Dublin Date: Sunday, 11 February Kick-off: 15:00 GMT
Coverage: Listen on BBC Sounds, BBC Radio 5 Live Sports Extra & BBC Radio Ulster; live text updates, report, reaction & highlights on BBC Sport website & app

It can be easily forgotten, given how Ireland expertly steered the Grand Slam ship home last year, that they flirted with the unthinkable on a nerve-wracking afternoon in Rome.

After wins over Wales and France, Ireland were expected to overwhelm Italy, pack their bags and set sights on their trip to Murrayfield. But it turned out to be anything but serene.

Despite a third-minute try from stand-in captain James Ryan, Andy Farrell’s side found themselves constantly pegged back, with Italy trailing by just seven points entering the final 10 minutes.

Mack Hansen’s second try of the afternoon ultimately crushed the Azzurri’s hopes of a seismic victory, but it served as a wake-up call for Ireland.

Similarities are not hard to find before Sunday’s encounter in Dublin. Once again, Ireland are riding the crest of a wave after beating France with last week’s record success in Marseille laying down a stern marker to those harbouring ambitions of knocking the Irish off their perch.

And like last year, Italy are smarting from a defeat by England as they prepare to face the Irish. However, unlike the 2023 fixture at Twickenham, Italy gave Steve Borthwick’s side a real scare in Rome last week before falling to a 27-24 loss.

Farrell made six changes to his team for Italy last year. It is the same again this year.

Last year, Ryan stepped in as skipper in Johnny Sexton’s absence. This week, Caelan Doris – a key figure in Ireland’s successes in recent years – will lead the team with Sexton’s successor Peter O’Mahony ruled out with a calf issue.

And as he was 12 months ago, Farrell again finds himself without injured centre Garry Ringrose. He is also without Tadhg Furlong, but Farrell expects the Leinster prop, Ringrose and O’Mahony all to return to training next week before facing Wales on 24 February.

After last year’s match, Farrell described Italy as a “bloody good side” and it is not hard to see how he arrived at that conclusion, having just watched his side be opened up on numerous occasions by Paolo Garbisi.

Montpellier’s Garbisi will again start at fly-half on Sunday, and while his younger brother Alessandro is not included after scoring Italy’s opening try against England, jet-heeled full-back Ange Capuozzo’s return promises to cause further Irish headaches.

While Gonzalo Quesada has replaced Kieran Crowley as head coach, Farrell expects to face another vibrant, forward-thinking Italian outfit on Sunday.

“The fight’s always been there,” Farrell said of Italy during his pre-match media briefing on Friday.

“What Kieran brought to the set-up over the last few years is still banked as far as the nice, attractive, attacking rugby with numbers at the line that caused a lot of trouble last week and last couple of years.

“They’re a bit more pragmatic with less errors which means they will be hard to beat, there’s no doubt about that.”

Paolo Garbisis runs with the ball during Italy and Ireland's Six Nations game in Rome last year
Paolo Garbisi impressed for Italy in last year’s Six Nations loss to Ireland

Italy have only ever beaten Ireland once in the Six Nations, in Rome in 2013.

Their last win in Dublin was in January 1997, part of a stunning hat-trick of Irish scalps between May 1995 and December 1997 when the Italians were inspired by the half-back partnership of Diego Dominguez and Alessandro Troncon.

Ireland, of course, are a different beast now. Last year’s ill-fated World Cup campaign will always haunt this side to some extent, but they have won 30 of their past 33 Tests. At this elite level, it is an astounding run.

Farrell has been the mastermind and the Englishman again used a meeting with the Irish media on Friday to stress the need for constant improvement, extinguishing any notion that Ireland are still riding high from their Marseille heroics.

“We’ve jumped on the back of what people perceive to be a good performance and a good win in France, to understand where it is we need to improve,” said Farrell.

It was another carefully placed warning to his squad.

Guarding against complacency is one of the cornerstones of Farrell’s leadership. But complacency should not be an issue for Ireland this week.

Not with memories of flirting with a rare reverse to Italy still somewhat fresh in their minds.

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