Six Nations talking points: Ireland pair handed big chance against Italy

Ross Byrne has been handed a big opportunity in starting Ireland’s game against Italy (Brian Lawless/PA) (PA Wire)
Ross Byrne has been handed a big opportunity in starting Ireland’s game against Italy (Brian Lawless/PA) (PA Wire)

Ireland continue their pursuit of the Guinness Six Nations title by taking on Italy in Rome.

Andy Farrell’s men head to Stadio Olimpico on the back of convincing bonus-point wins over Wales and France.

Here, we pick out some of the main talking points ahead of Saturday afternoon’s round-three clash.

Maintaining momentum

The world’s top-ranked team justified recent hype by propelling themselves into pole position for a first championship title since 2018 by impressively toppling reigning champions France last time out.

Head coach Farrell has made six personnel changes to his starting XV from that game, only two of which were enforced. The Englishman insisted he has not tinkered for the sake of it. He expects a seamless transition and for the incoming players to help ensure the in-form Irish remain as tournament frontrunners.

Big opportunities for Byrne and Casey

In the space of a fortnight, Ireland have swapped two British and Irish Lions with 227 Test caps combined for a half-back duo each making maiden starts in the Six Nations. More than four years on from his debut, fly-half Ross Byrne can finally pull on the number 10 jersey in the championship due to an injury to Leinster team-mate Johnny Sexton. The 27-year-old only returned from the international wilderness in the autumn and will be partnered by scrum-half Craig Casey, who has been preferred to fellow Munster man Conor Murray. Farrell has urged the rookie pairing to take the game to Italy.

Azzurri out for an upset

Perennial wooden spoon winners Italy have beaten Ireland just once in 23 previous Six Nations clashes. That landmark 22-15 success came a decade ago and ultimately spelled the end of Declan Kidney’s reign. The resurgent Azzurri, buoyed by eye-catching wins over Wales and Australia in 2022, have developed into a far tougher proposition in recent times and, with home advantage, may well fancy another upset. Fly-half Paolo Garbisi is back from injury to add to the mercurial talents of full-back Ange Capuozzo, with Mack Hansen this week admitting the Italians now possess “genuine superstars”.

Leadership contest

With Sexton, who relentlessly drives standards in the Irish camp, sidelined, James Ryan has been given the responsibility of captaining his country. The 26-year-old will perform the role for the seventh time, two weeks on from reaching a half-century of Test appearances. Farrell believes he is fortunate to have a squad packed with leadership potential. While Munster’s Peter O’Mahony and Ulster’s Iain Henderson are obvious candidates due to captaining their respective clubs, the head coach also touted Leinster centre Garry Ringrose as a future Ireland skipper ahead of his 50th cap.

Farrell keen on Hugo

Despite Italy’s upward trajectory, this fixture is arguably one of Farrell’s final opportunities to experiment before the World Cup. He may have done so at nine and 10 but full-back Hugo Keenan will start for the 28th game out of 30 dating back to his debut against the Italians in October 2020. Although the former sevens player, who last week signed a three-year central contract, has been virtually ever-present for the Irish, Farrell insists his squad is well-stocked at 15, citing Jimmy O’Brien, Hansen, Jack Crowley and Joey Carbery as able deputies.