O'Driscoll approaches Italian job with caution

There Have been two topics of conversation in Roman bars this week - the health of the pontiff and the opening round of the Six Nations Championship, which sees John Kirwan's Italy take on the pre-tournament favourites Ireland at the Stadio Flaminio tomorrow.

The national team is in robust health and rugby is beginning to capture the imagination of Italian sports followers. It is a matter of time now before Italy announce themselves as a force to be reckoned with. Certainly Ireland are under no illusions.

"The Italians are far more structured and organised these days," says Ireland's captain Brian O'Driscoll. "They have learned from other sides and are fast becoming a smart team and are getting harder and harder to bring down. The days of Italy being the whipping boys are long behind us."

Ireland, runners-up in the last two seasons, are no mugs themselves. True, in the bad old days they did succumb to Italy twice away and once in Dublin, but that was last century. Since Italy's entry into the Six Nations in 2000 the men in green have not lost to the Azzurri.

They will be aware that Italy have a ferocious and competitive pack. Four of the back five play in France, the odd man out, the No8 Sergio Parisse, being a member of Treviso's impressive set of forwards.

If Ireland are to win, then they will have to look to their own pack to assert themselves, because there is little doubt that once the ball goes wide the likes of O'Driscoll, his centre partner Gordon D'Arcy, the fullback Geordan Murphy and wing Denis Hickie will have the speed to round the opposition.

Not that Italy's defensive co-ordinator, the Australian Grant Doorey, is too worried. "D'Arcy is a great attacker and as for Brian O'Driscoll, he is very dangerous with ball in hand," he said. "They make a great partnership. But we also have two quality players in Gonzalo Canale and Andrea Masi. Both players are wonderful in the tackle. This promises be a battle between two great centre pairings. We can expect fireworks from these players."

In five seasons of Six Nations action the Azzurri boast three victories - two over Scotland and one over Wales - and Kirwan, the former All Black wing who is now their head coach, wants more. That they have avoided the wooden spoon for the last two years means little.

"We have improved in the competition in the last few years, but every year is getting harder because our rivals are also getting stronger," says Kirwan, who took charge of the Italy side in 2002. "Playing at home is positive for us. It's certainly not going to be easy with Ireland having won the Triple Crown and France the Six Nations last year."

The captain Marco Bortolami added: "If we are able to play as well as we know we can then this Six Nations could be a turning point for our national team. We want to improve from last season. We want to win two games. It's certainly going to be more challenging because our rivals know they will face a difficult opponent and will not give us anything for free."

Alessandro Troncon, who is the country's most capped player with 85 and a key member of the team since entering the tournament, recently flounced out of the squad on learning he had lost the captaincy to Bortolami.

That was in November. Troncon is back in the fold now, at scrum-half in place of Paul Griffen, whose fitness is in doubt. With experience like Troncon's behind the scrum all it needs now is for the Italian forwards to assert themselves and who knows, maybe the Azzurri's heroics will dominate conversation in the Vatican as well.

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