Joe Schmidt has made four changes to the Ireland side that defeated France last week as Conor O’Shea’s Italy travel to the Aviva Stadium.
Jack McGrath, Devin Toner, Dan Leavy and Jack Conan come in for Cian Healy, James Ryan, Josh van der Flier and CJ Stander respectively. Rory Best continues as captain at hooker while Iain Henderson starts at lock. Peter O’Mahony partners Leavy and Conan in the back row.
As expected, Jacob Stockdale is the sole representative from Ulster in the backline. Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray combine at half backs, while Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw continue in midfield. Keith Earls and Rob Kearney partner Stockdale in the back three.
The impressive Jordan Larmour is set to make his international debut off the bench while Schmidt has stated that Joey Carbery will make an appearance on Saturday. Larmour has earned his call up and I am sure that he will prove a vital component to future Irish squads. Sean Cronin, Cian Healy, Andrew Porter, Quinn Roux, CJ Stander and Kieran Marmion complete the replacements’ bench.
Ireland welcome the challenge of Italy after a stuttering performance against a powerful French outfit. There was a serious lack of creativity in the backline as Ireland struggled to make any sharp incisions into a well-drilled French backline. Italy have improved from the last meeting between the sides, but Ireland should be able to show some flair in attack.
I am concerned however that we are yet to see a tried and tested back up option for Johnny Sexton developed. Ireland don’t have anywhere near the strength and depth of England so need to prepare for the worst case scenario only 18 months out from the World Cup.
Italy have a couple of useful players, who Ulster supporters will know all about. There’s the obvious Sergio Parisse, but Carlo Canna is a talented out half and will feature off the bench. Canna masterminded Zebre’s victory over Ulster this season with an excellent display of tactical kicking while his club team mate, Mattia Bellini scored two tries in that match. Ireland will deal with the threat of the Zebre contigent much better than Ulster did in September.
The FRU predicts: Italy showed fight against England last week but eventually ran out of gas, with England scoring three tries in the last 12 minutes. I predict Ireland to win this by 15 points.