Preview: Ireland v Italy talking points

Dan Sheehan in action for Ireland v Italy during 2022 Six Nations Ireland and Italy meet at the Aviva Stadium on Sunday afternoon (Brian Lawless/PA)

Ireland continue their Six Nations title defence with Sunday afternoon’s match against Italy in Dublin.

Andy Farrell’s men launched their campaign with a record bonus-point win away to France, while the Azzurri were narrowly beaten by England.

Here, we pick out some of the main talking points ahead of the Aviva Stadium clash.

Too early to talk about successive Grand Slams?

The reigning champions were handed the toughest opening fixture yet emerged from round one of the tournament as the only convincing victors. Ireland crushed pre-tournament favourites France in Marseille with a statement 38-17 success which propelled them into pole position for further championship glory. The fixture has been the title decider in each of the past two years and could prove to be again. Farrell’s team are expected to win this weekend and will also be favourites for subsequent Dublin showdowns with Wales and Scotland. A round-four trip to Twickenham appears to be Ireland’s biggest obstacle to becoming the first side to claim back-to-back Grand Slams since the Six Nations began in 2000.

Captain Caelan

Caelan Doris was touted as a potential successor to Johnny Sexton as Ireland captain. A calf injury for new skipper Peter O’Mahony means the 25-year-old has the chance to lead his country for the first time just two games into the post-Sexton era. Doris made his debut in the opening Test of Farrell’s reign in 2020 and has since developed into a genuine world-class talent. He switches from number eight to openside flanker this weekend, a position from which he scored two tries during the Azzurri’s last visit to Dublin in August. With veteran flanker O’Mahony set to turn 38 before the 2027 World Cup, Doris’ temporary appointment is a major audition for the future.

Big Joe’s big impact

Head coach Farrell raised some eyebrows by selecting rookie lock Joe McCarthy ahead of James Ryan and Iain Henderson at Stade Velodrome. But the hulking 22-year-old more than justified that decision with a dominant display which saw him voted championship player of round one. McCarthy’s Six Nations debut suggests he will star in Ireland’s second row for many years to come. He will be partnered by recalled provincial team-mate Ryan on Sunday. The 27-year-old Leinster co-captain, who comes in for Tadhg Beirne, will no doubt be desperate to give a reminder of his talents, having gone from possible new Ireland skipper to fighting for a regular starting spot.

Azzurri blues to continue?

Italy impressed in a narrow 27-24 loss against England in Rome last weekend. But they have never won on Irish soil during the Six Nations era. Their sole victory over Ireland in 24 championship matches was a 22-15 Stadio Olimpico success in 2013. Mercurial full-back Ange Capuozzo is back from illness to strengthen the visitors. Yet new head coach Gonzalo Quesada has lost influential back-row forwards Sebastian Negri and Lorenzo Cannone due to injury. Ireland are overwhelming favourites to register a 17th consecutive home win, dating back to 2021. It will be some story if Italy somehow defy the odds.

A glimpse into the future

In addition to Doris taking on the captaincy and the eye-catching emergence of McCarthy, Farrell has selected 24-year-old Munster half-backs Jack Crowley and Craig Casey to start together for just the second time. Fly-half Crowley appears to be the long-term replacement for the retired Sexton and overcame a few nervy kicks in France to produce an encouraging performance. Casey has usurped Conor Murray at provincial level and will now be eager to kick on and challenge first-choice scrum-half Jamison Gibson-Park on the international stage.

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