DUBLIN (Reuters) - A convincing victory for Ireland at home to Italy on Saturday could set up a cliffhanger on the final day of the long delayed Six Nations competition next weekend.
Ireland have a game in hand in the competition, which was halted in March by the COVID-19 outbreak. If they score a bonus point victory at the Aviva Stadium it would hand them a five point haul, one ahead of England and France going into the last set of matches on Oct. 31.
Ireland complete their programme away in Paris against France while England finish off their delayed fixture list in Rome against Italy at the end of the month and would look to be in the driving seat for silverware.
But in order to be in the mix, Ireland must first ensure success this Saturday.
"The most important thing for us is that we win, get the result. That's what this game is about and it's what we're focused on," said captain Johnny Sexton this week in the build-up to the game.
But while Italy have lost 25 successive Six Nations clashes, stretching back to 2015, there is no guarantee of an Irish romp as international rugby in the northern hemisphere returns after a lengthy hiatus and amid much changed circumstances.
Ireland will not have the backing of their passionate fans, have lost senior players to injury and suspension, are dealing with a strict new COVID-19 lockdown in their country and coach Andy Farrell has warned about a possible Italian surprise.
"They have nothing to lose and I like the style of rugby that they want to play. They're throwing the ball around and they'll be dangerous on Saturday so they'll have a shout in how we play as well," he said.
(Writing by Mark Gleeson in Cape Town; Editing by Christian Radnedge)