Keith Earls is determined to prove he is worthy of becoming Brian O'Driscoll's successor as Ireland's outside centre. The Munsterman ran in the first try in Saturday's rout of Italy as part of a bright display that mixed flourishes in attack with moments of defensive steel.
The 24-year-old is seen by the Irish management as the player to fill the void when O'Driscoll, who will miss the whole of this year's Six Nations following shoulder surgery, eventually retires. Earls will thus continue in the No 13 jersey for the last three matches. He wants to show that defensive frailties exposed by Wales in last autumn's World Cup quarter-finals were just an aberration.
"I made a couple of mistakes in that match," said Earls, who missed the Six Nations opener against Wales because his daughter, born last month, was ill.
"No excuses, but I should have gone off that time when I got hit by [Wales centre] Jamie Roberts. It would have been easier for me to go off but I wanted to stay on and help the lads and I made a couple of silly decisions in defence. Because of that I want to get out there and prove everyone wrong and show I'm capable of taking over from Brian and that 13 is my position.
"I felt good in my defence against Italy and it's something I have been working on since I got back from the World Cup. I know my attack is there, so in training I've been using Donnacha Ryan as a battering ram to give me practice in defence."
Ireland's top try-scorer at the World Cup has played most of his Test rugby on the wing. "I've been playing centre all my life, though I've also played at wing and full-back which has made me more versatile," he said."I spoke to [Munster coach] Tony McGahan when I came back from the World Cup and said that I wanted to be a 13, I feel more comfortable there.
"Tony was all for it, I just had to prove to him I deserved to be playing 13 and he gave me my chance. I have worked hard at training and thankfully he trusted me and it's been good since."
Far greater tests than the Azzurri midfield await. First up are French pair Aurelien Rougerie and Wesley Fofana, in Paris next Sunday.
"Gordon D'Arcy and I haven't played with each other that much and he is used to Brian, so it will take a while before we're used to each other," he said. "We're confident together and know each other well. I don't think we did anything bad against Italy and our confidence will only grow from here. I enjoy playing with him, he's a good guy to run off. I trust him in defence and we're starting to gel together."
Ireland: Tries Earls, Bowe 2, Court, Trimble; Conversions Sexton 4; Penalties Sexton 3. Italy: Try Parisse; Conversion Botes; Penalty Botes.
Ireland R Kearney; T Bowe, K Earls, G D'Arcy, A Trimble; J Sexton, C Murray; C Healy, R Best, M Ross, D O'Callaghan, P O'Connell, S Ferris, J Heaslip, S O'Brien. Replacements E Reddan for Murray, 54; P O'Mahony for O'Brien, 58; D Ryan for O'Callaghan, 58; F McFadden for Earls, 67; T Court for Healy, 69; S Cronin for Best, 69; R O'Gara for D'Arcy, 69.
Italy A Masi; G Venditti, T Benvenuti, A Sgarbi, L McLean; T Botes, E Gori; M Rizzo, L Ghiraldini, L Cittadini, Q Geldenhuys, M Bortolami, A Zanni, S Parisse, R Barbieri. Replacements K Burton for Botes, 58; A Pavanello for Geldenhuys, 58; G Canale for Sgarbi, 63; S Favaro for Barbieri, 64; F Staibano for Cittadini, 67; F Semenzato for Gori, 71; T D'Apice for Ghiraldini, 71.
Referee M Joubert (South Africa).
Ireland Points Italy
5 Tries 1
4/5 Conversions 1/1
3/3 Penalties 1/4
0 Drop goals 0/1
Phases of play
3/0 Scrums won/lost 4/0
6/2 Line-outs won/lost 8/1
11 Pens conceded 12
3 Mauls won 5
22 Ruck and drive 6
81 Ruck and pass 41
175 Passes completed 125
8 Line breaks 2
19 Possession kicked 17
5 Kicks to touch 1
70/1 Tackles made/missed 125/9
12 Offloads in tackle 7
10 Total errors made 10
106 In open play 52
42 In opponent's 22 9
21 At set pieces 23
8 Turnovers won 2