Ireland will chase a return to top form in Sunday’s Guinness Six Nations clash against Italy in Rome.
Here, Press Association Sport examines the key talking points ahead of the Stadio Olimpico clash.
Super-sub Cronin has starting chance
Leinster hooker Sean Cronin has more appearances from the bench than anyone in the history of Test match rugby. His 58 substitute showings in 67 caps is a world record that will take some beating. At the ripe old age of 32 then, the free-running front-rower will finally make his full Six Nations debut, with Ireland resting skipper Rory Best in Rome. Evergreen Best continues to belie his 36 years with composed performances and measured stewardship of Joe Schmidt’s side. Cronin’s pacy running and smart ball handling nicely complements Best’s abrasive approach. But both also boast increasingly rounded games, and this will be Cronin’s biggest chance for some time to stake his starting claims.
Ireland chasing the right rhythm
Head coach Schmidt’s refusal to issue blanket changes to his line-up to face the struggling Italians indicates clearly the desire for Ireland to play their way back into form. This in truth really ought to be a bonus-point victory for the Irish, who are still searching for top gear in the wake of their 32-20 opening-weekend defeat by England. A patchy 22-13 win over Scotland in Edinburgh set Schmidt’s men back to winning ways but with precious little else. Ring rusty British and Irish Lions half-backs Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton will hugely appreciate the chance to sharpen up – now they must seize that opening.
O’Shea’s project must bear fruit at some point
Former Ireland full-back Conor O’Shea has been in charge of Italy since the autumn of 2016. In his third Six Nations campaign, the ex-Harlequins boss is yet to pull off a championship victory. Much of O’Shea’s wide-ranging remit revolves around pioneering new infrastructures for the growing Italian rugby set-up. But the well-respected and accomplished coach also needs success on the field. The time to deliver is fast approaching, especially with the World Cup around the corner. O’Shea has spoken several times of future coaches reaping the benefits of his work behind the scenes. But he will need more than that to cement an Italian legacy of true note.
Stand-in skipper O’Mahony must handle officials
Munster’s uncompromising flanker Peter O’Mahony has plenty of captaincy experience, but the gritty loose-forward remains prone to the odd bout of verbal venting. Sunday’s referee Glen Jackson is among the game’s more measured and accomplished officials. But the former Saracens fly-half will still take no nonsense. Regular captain Best is a master of staying on the right side of the referees, and O’Mahony will have to take a leaf out of the Ulster hooker’s book this weekend.