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Conor O’Shea returns to the land of his birth for the first time as a national coach in the opening game of this week’s Six Nations. Sadly for him (and Italian supporters), it does not seem like this homecoming will be pleasant. A comfortable 34 – 10 victory for Ireland, and another tough day out for O’Shea and his team, is predicted.
Few will recall that Italy have won in Dublin before, in 1997, before the 6 Nations and before the Aviva ‘replaced’ Lansdowne Road. But, this proves it can be done and will give O’Shea’s men something to focus on. It is a better focal point than Italy’s overall record of four wins and 23 losses against Ireland (one win and 17 losses in the 6 Nations) and last year’s result – a 63 – 10 Irish romp in Rome.
Ireland will be hoping for a result similar to the 58 – 15 home victory in the 2016 Six Nations to add a bonus point to their tally and a favourable points difference after their last gasp victory in Paris late week (thanks, Johnny!).
Italy on the other hand will be looking to keep the game close, as they did in the 2015 World Cup (a 16 – 9 Irish victory), and hope for a repeat of their 1997 triumph. This triumph, whilst it might seem an anomaly, is backed up by Italy’s and Ireland’s respective rankings around that time. A good time for Italian rugby, it would appear, and less so for Ireland.
The men in green will be buzzing after the Sexton drop goal that secured only their third win on French soil during the Six Nations. Ireland are on an eight match unbeaten run at the moment and, second only to England, are the team most likely to win this year’s tournament. If Ireland win their three home games over the next few weeks, then they will take their unbeaten run to 11 games, beating their previous best of ten matches set twice, first between 2002 – 2003 and secondly between 2014 – 2015.
In their first of three home matches in this year’s tournament, the Irish will be hoping to collect maximum points and boost their points’ difference against an Italian side that they haven’t lost to since 2013. It will also be interesting to see whether the Irish take the opportunity to rest some starters in anticipation of the ‘bigger’ games on their schedule – especially after the physical game last week.
Conor O’Shea’s tenure as Italian boss has been tough (18 games, 4 wins, 12 losses), as has Italy’s history in this tournament (they have won 13% of their 91 games since their addition in 2000).
Italy play three away games in the Six Nations this year – all in venues in which they have never won (Lansdowne Road, having been redeveloped, and Murrayfield not on their schedule this year). Will their passion, pride and, perhaps O’Shea’s Irish luck be enough to change this? Based solely on the numbers, almost certainly not.