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Where: Lansdowne Road, Dublin
When: 14.30 (GMT)
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Ireland captain Paul O’Connell has said he is struggling to contemplate playing in a Test side without Brian O’Driscoll as the star centre prepares for his final home international at Dublin’s Lansdowne Road on Saturday.
O’Driscoll starts in Joe Schmidt’s team to face Italy in the penultimate round of Six Nations games, and will set a new world-record for Test appearances in doing so, taking his tally to 140, surpassing the mark he shared with former Australia scrum-half George Gregan.
As expected, the feat has garnered much of the media attention this week, with barely one eye cast over the Italian threat — blunted somewhat by the absence of injured talisman Sergio Parisse — but O’Connell insisted it has been business as usual within the confines of the Ireland training camp.
“I think he is a bit embarrassed by it all,” O’Connell said of the attention showered on O’Driscoll.
“He is working hard and looking after his body so he just wants to focus on that,” added the lock, like former Ireland captain O’Driscoll also once a skipper of the British and Irish Lions.
“He is a quiet guy, an understated guy so he just wants to focus on finishing as well as he can and avoid any distractions. But it is something that is definitely in the back of your mind. It is hard to get away from at the moment.
“It is hard to think what life would be like without him. But there has been very little mention of it from staff, players or Brian himself. I’m sure that’s the way he likes it.”
It’s perhaps ironic that Italy provide the opposition for O’Driscoll’s last home appearance, given he had seemed set to bow out last year with a clash against the Azzurri.
The Leinster legend had hinted he would retire last season, but that final day defeat by Italy – Ireland’s first loss to the Azzurri in the Six Nations — along with the appointment of his former provincial coach Schmidt as Declan Kidney’s successor, convinced him to have one more shot at the title.
The Italians come to Dublin on the back of three straight defeats, with Ireland still championship favourites courtesy of a points difference 21 better off than second place England, who defeated them 13-10 at Twickenham last time out.
Victory against Jacques Brunel’s men, by anything above single digits, would ensure Ireland travel to Paris on the final weekend of the tournament with the title firmly in their sights.
“If we can get some points on the board, that’s great, but I think we would be naive to expect Italy to lie down,” Schmidt said. “That’s just not going to happen.”
Ireland made just one change to the starting line-up that faced England, with Ulster’s Iain Henderson replacing injured flanker Peter O’Mahony.
Fly-half Jonathan Sexton, who was said to be facing a 10-day to six week absence by his club Racing Metro, has made a complete recovery from thumb ligament damage and will start.
Italy were on the brink of their first win this season when, with seconds to spare, Duncan Weir’s drop-goal gave Scotland a 21-20 win in Rome last time out.
A calf injury has denied them the services of inspirational captain Parisse, who along with Martin Castrogiovanni collected a record 104th cap for Italy against the Scots.
“We’ve got five back-row players out injured, so we have to adapt,” lamented Brunel.
Robert Barbieri takes Parisse’s place at No 8, with Joshua Furno moving across to complete the back row.
Behind the scrum, Brunel sprang a suprise by changing his half-back pairing, with scrum-half Tito TebAldi and fly-half Luciano Orquera starting in place of the benched Edoardo Gori and Tommaso Allan respectively.
“We just didn’t manage things well while under pressure,” said French coach Brunel by way of explanation.
“We’ve given plenty of playing time to the same (players) over three matches, now we have to give some to some others.”
Teams for the Six Nations international between Ireland and Italy
Rob Kearney; Andrew Trimble, Brian O’Driscoll, Gordon D’Arcy, Dave Kearney; Jonathan Sexton, Conor Murray; Jamie Heaslip, Chris Henry, Iain Henderson; Paul O’Connell (capt), Devin Toner; Mike Ross, Rory Best, Cian Healy
Replacements: Sean Cronin, Jack McGrath, Martin Moore Rhys Ruddock, Jordi Murphy, Eoin Reddan, Paddy Jackson, Fergus McFadden
Luke McLean; Angelo Esposito, Michele Campagnaro, Gonzalo Garcia, Leonardo Sarto; Luciano Orquera, Tito Tebaldi; Paul Derbyshire, Robert Barbieri, Joshua Furno; Marco Bortolami (capt), Quintin Geldenhuys; Martin Castrogiovanni, Leonardo Ghiraldini, Alberto De Marchi
Replacements: Davide Giazzon, Michele Rizzo, Lorenzo Cittadini, Antonio Pavanello, Manoa Vosawai, Edoardo Gori, Tommaso Allan, Andrea Masi
Referee: Nigel Owens (WAL)
Head-to-head record between Ireland and Italy ahead of their Six Nations international in Dublin on Saturday:
Ireland wins: 18
Italy wins: 4
Highest Scores: Ireland 61-6, 2003; Italy 37-29, 1997 and 37-22, 1997
Biggest Wins: Ireland 61-6, 2003; Italy 37-22, 1997
Last five results
2013 Rome: ITA 22-15
2012 Dublin: IRL 42-10
2011 Dunedin (WC): IRL 36-6
2011 Rome: IRL 13-11
2010 Dublin: IRL 29-11
Note: WC = World Cup