Ireland v Italy, Six Nations, February 6
Ireland launch title defence
Graham Jenkins
February 4, 2010

Ireland had to endure 61 years of heartache before breaking their Grand Slam drought in spectacular fashion and so the small matter of another 12 months before embarking on their quest for unprecedented back-to-back clean sweeps will have been a relative breeze.

And what a year it has been. There was Magners League glory for Munster, Heineken Cup success for Leinster, a distinct Irish flavour to the British & Irish Lions squad, an unbeaten tour of North America, and a Churchill Cup triumph for Ireland 'A'. But there was more to come with a thrilling draw with Australia and a battling victory over South Africa bringing the curtain down on the most success-laden year in Irish rugby history.

As a result Declan Kidney's side enter this year's Six Nations on the back of an 11-game unbeaten run and as the highest placed European side in the IRB World Rankings. With such momentum you could forgive Kidney and his squad a hint of bravado but there is none to be found. The slate has been wiped clean and everyone is once again equal according to Kidney and his captain Brian O'Driscoll - a fact that the average Irish fan will take delight in ignoring.

Whether they like it or not they enter the Championship as favourites and with three games at home - in what is their final season at Croke Park before returning to the re-vamped Lansdowne Road - they have further cause to be confident. Trips to the Stade de France and Twickenham will surely have a stronger bearing on Ireland's campaign but that is not to say they will treat the Italians lightly. They may have had the wood on their continental rivals in the Championship but Italy held their hosts to single digit victories on their last two visits to the republic.

Italy begin this year's Six Nations as favourites for only one thing - the wooden spoon - having collected that dubious honour four times in the last five years. The Azzurri continue to labour under the strain of a limited talent pool and with their best player and talisman - No.8 Sergio Parisse - sidelined for the entire Championship their immediate future looks bleak.

Ireland boast an arguably more impressive armoury than they had at this point last year thanks largely to the emergence of fly-half Jonathan Sexton. The Leinster star was on course to retain the No.10 shirt he filled so well in the autumn but was stripped of the chance to make his Six Nations bow by a dead leg. But in veteran Ronan O'Gara they have a more than able fly-half ready to remind his coach of what he can offer.

Unsurprisingly, Kidney has only tinkered with his line-up with Leinster's Kevin McLaughlin the one new cap named for the clash and the flanker is only granted a chance to shine because of an injury to Stephen Ferris. One player making a long-awaited comeback is Andrew Trimble who will put two years of injury woe and a lack of form behind him while Gordon D'Arcy renews his centre partnership with O'Driscoll.

Italy have only ever flirted with the prospect of becoming anything other than a Championship make-weight. They have struggled to achieve a consistent level of excellence hampered by a distinct shortage of top-class talent. It has been a constant challenge for Mallett and his predecessors and the jury is out on whether it is a battle they are winning. And there appears little chance of that depressing picture changing with Italy's hopes of joining the Magners League floundering.

Mallett proudly defended the progress the side has made under his tenure but the fact remains that they have just one victory from their last 14 encounters - against Samoa in their most recent clash. He claims his team have learnt from a series of harsh lessons against southern hemisphere opposition but how much is yet to be seen. And if they are to upset the odds then they will have to do it the hard way with just two capacity crowds at the Stadio Flaminio to draw on.

Former Australia rugby league captain Craig Gower will be pivotal for Italy with Mallett having already singled out the former NRL star as a cornerstone of his Rugby World Cup squad. But having only switched codes less than two years ago he remains raw and Mallett himself has concerns over his fly-half's kicking game but is prepared to gamble in the hope of long-term development.

Elsewhere, athletic Treviso forward Alessandro Zanni is given the task of filling Parisse's formidable boots while hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini is handed the captaincy. The latter will pack down alongside Salvatore Perugini and Martin Castrogiovanni in a front row widely considered to be Italy's trump card. The Italian pack held their own against the best in the world last year but were let down by a backline lacking a cutting edge - sadly an all too familiar problem.

Italy have won just one of their last ten games in the Championship and they are highly unlikely to improve that record this weekend. The Six Nations has a habit of throwing up the occasional shock, with Italy often at the heart of the story, but even this one appears beyond them. They can only hope that their drought is not as long as Ireland's.

Ireland: R Kearney (Leinster); T Bowe (Ospreys), B O'Driscoll (Leinster capt), G D'Arcy (Leinster), A Trimble (Ulster); R O'Gara (Munster), T O'Leary (Munster); C Healy (Leinster), J Flannery (Munster), J Hayes (Munster); L Cullen (Leinster), P O'Connell (Munster), K McLaughlin (Leinster), D Wallace (Munster), J Heaslip (Leinster).

Replacements: R Best (Ulster), T Court (Ulster), D Ryan (Munster), S O'Brien (Leinster), E Reddan (Leinster), P Wallace (Ulster), K Earls (Munster).

Italy: L McLean (Benetton Treviso); K Robertson (Viadana), G Canale (Clermont-Aubergne), G Garcia (Benetton Treviso), Mirco Bergamasco (Stade Francais); C Gower (Bayonne), T Tebaldi (Gran Parma); S Perugini (Bayonne), L Ghiraldini (Benetton Treviso), M Castrogiovanni (Leicester Tigers), C Del Fava (Viadana), Q Geldenhuys (Viadana), J Sole (Viadana), Mauro Bergamasco (Stade Francais), A Zanni (Benetton Treviso)

Replacements: F Ongaro (Saracens), M Aguero (Saracens), M Bortolami (Gloucester), P Derbyshire (Petrarca Padova), S Picone (Treviso), R Bocchino (Rovigo), A Masi (Racing Metro Paris)

Referee: Romain Poite (France)

Assistant referees: C Berdos (France), J Garces (France)
Television Match Official: G Warren (England)

Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum.

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