By Graham Woods
Round one of the Six Nations was all about Ireland, who claimed the only bonus-point win with a 38-17 victory at pre-tournament favourites France, and they are in a strong position to double their advantage in a home clash with Italy.
Italy performed above expectations in their opening match against England, leading at half-time and going down 27-24, but this looks a tougher test against a more settled side and the Azzurri have a history of heavy defeats in Dublin.
A home game against Italy is often a chance to ring the changes and bring in some fringe players, but just one game into the tournament and just after a World Cup re-set, Ireland head coach Andy Farrell has chosen a middle path.
There are six changes to the team but fly-half Jack Crowley, who impressed last week as he stepped up to fill the boots of retired Johnny Sexton, retains his place. He lines up alongside Munster teammate Craig Casey at scrum-half. Jamison Gibson-Park and Josh van der Flier drop to the bench while skipper Peter O’Mahony is left out of the squad.
Ireland have shown they have the depth in their squad that they can make changes without compromising consistency of performance and they certainly don’t look weakened for this match.
Italy have made four changes to their side including Gloucester scrum-half Stephen Varney’s promotion from the bench to the starting line-up while Ange Capuozzo of Toulouse is named at full-back having missed out last week through illness.
Ireland are long odds-on for victory at 1/500 for victory while Italy are 18/1 shots and are given a 33-point start on the handicap at 20/21.Caelan Doris captains Ireland for the first time and is priced at 12/1 to mark the occasion by scoring the first try in this Dublin clash.
Ireland -33 on handicap @ 10/11
Italy came out of their opening match against England with a lot of credit but Sunday’s clash with Ireland looks set to be a tougher assignment.
The Azzurri outscored England by three tries to two but they were pitched up against an England backline who are in transition with a new defence coach, and their third try which brought the deficit down to just three points came after they had been awarded a penalty with the clock already in the red.
Italy are stepping up their scoring output and have dangerous backs in Capuozzo, Monty Ioane and Tommaso Menoncello, but they are up against an Ireland outfit with the best defensive record in the last two Six Nations tournaments, conceding just six tries last year and four in 2022.
While Ireland’s defence has been strong, their attacking output has been even stronger. In their last six meetings with Italy in the Six Nations in Dublin, they have outscored the Azzurri by 309 points to 74 and 45 tries to nine, winning by more than 30 points and covering the handicap every time.
Ireland come into their own at home, where they have rewarded their handicap backers in 21 of their last 26 Six Nations matches, and given this is their first match in Dublin after seven games on the road, they will be fired up to thrill their home fans.
Caelan Doris to score a try @ 7/4
Back-row forward Caelan Doris has been handed the captaincy for Ireland after Peter O’Mahony was ruled out through injury and he can step up in style with a try against Italy.
Six tries in 37 Tests isn’t a huge return but three of Ireland’s five tries against France came from their forwards and they may well look to take on the Azzurri from close range again.
Doris bagged two tries in last year’s World Cup warm-up victory over Italy in Rome and also crossed the line in big autumn internationals against Argentina and New Zealand, so is a man for the big occasion.
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