Murphy gives new impetus to Ireland's heady rise

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The Independent Online

The party is far from over for the Irish. Trailing home from Cheltenham, there is barely a chance to pause for an aspirin before cheering the resumption of the Six Nations' Championship, in which Brian O'Driscoll's team are an outside bet for the title, and odds-on for the Triple Crown. Heady days, if the sore heads can take it.

The party is far from over for the Irish. Trailing home from Cheltenham, there is barely a chance to pause for an aspirin before cheering the resumption of the Six Nations' Championship, in which Brian O'Driscoll's team are an outside bet for the title, and odds-on for the Triple Crown. Heady days, if the sore heads can take it.

Ireland's first task, this afternoon, is to defeat Italy, ideally with a healthy points difference. The destiny of the title depends on results involving France and England in the last two rounds of matches, but a first Triple Crown in 19 years is all in Irish hands. If they beat Scotland next Saturday it will complete only their seventh such achievement in more than a century of trying.

O'Driscoll was judged to have been well below top form in the stunning 19-13 win over England a fortnight ago, a harsh assessment given that it was only the Leinster centre's second match back after a six-week lay-off with a torn hamstring. How much, then, can reasonably be expected against the combative Italians of Geordan Murphy, who plays on the left wing six months after suffering a compound fracture of his left tibia and fibula? "I spoke to [Ireland's coach] Eddie O'Sullivan at the start of last week," said Murphy, who has had three comeback matches for Leicester. "I had to be honest with him, and honest with myself. I told him I was ready to play."

If Murphy is right, as they say in racing circles, his return should galvanise Ireland in their equivalent of a run chase, not that O'Sullivan is admitting to any such consideration. "I've never seen Italy as whipping boys," O'Sullivan said. "Their continuity game really impresses me. They can string endless phases together and it's hard to get the ball off them."

The hectic calendar of the modern game is about to claim a venerable victim on the statistics sheet, with Leinster's Malcolm O'Kelly equalling Willie John McBride's record of 63 caps for an Ireland forward. More pertinently, the weekly grind also robbed Ireland yesterday of a probable Lions lock of the future, when Paul O'Connell withdrew with bruised ribs which had not recovered from the England game. "It's a loss obviously," said O'Sullivan, "because Paul is on top of his game at the moment."

O'Kelly was dropped in favour of Donncha O'Callaghan for Ireland's previous match in Dublin, the thumping win over Wales; now the pair combine to form a new second row.

The absence of O'Connell is a blow to the vaunted Irish line-out, and hoping to take advantage is another man with a milestone, Italy's Carlo Checchinato, who today wins his 83rd cap to draw level with the scrum-half, Alessandro Troncon, at the top of Italy's all-time list. A great survivor in the Jason Leonard mould, Checchinato made his debut in 1990, and recently went into print with the book of his life story: he has scored more tries - 21 - than any other forward, and will retire from international rugby after the Six Nations. "I'm proud to have contributed, as much as I possibly could, to the leap forward in quality of Italian rugby," he said.

Checchinato replaces the injured Sergio Parisse, while the other change to Italy's pack brings Scott Palmer in at No 8 for Santiago Dellape. The coach, John Kirwan, may not be a tinkerman of Claudio Ranieri proportions, but his back division has been unsettled because of injury. Only Paul Griffen, the lavishly hirsute scrum-half, Cristian Stoica and Denis Dallan have held their places throughout the championship, and the latest change sees Matteo Barbini take over from Manuel Dallan at inside centre.

Having savoured the home win over Scotland, Italy's captain, Andrea de Rossi, has publicly targeted next Saturday's match in Wales as a potential first away success in the tournament. "Against Ireland, we have nothing to lose," said De Rossi. It is an attitude that can sometimes make for dangerous opponents. But the Irish, with 16 wins in 23 matches since the Five Nations became Six, appear to have consigned complacency to the same dustbin as any number of losing Cheltenham betting slips.

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