Italy v Ireland: No Roman holiday for Farrell’s side as they face resurgent Azzurri without Sexton

Six Nations 2023: Coach will find out on Saturday if Ireland are now better equipped to cope with a different outhalf

Players and coaches throughout Leinster and Ireland have consistently spoken about Johnny Sexton’s profound influence on the training ground and off the pitch as much as on it. While his presence remains this week, and he was among the travelling party to Rome on Thursday, Saturday’s Guinness Six Nations clash against Italy in the Stadio Olimpico (2.15pm Irish) is a rare enough instance of Ireland taking the pitch without him in a Championship match in recent times.

True, Jack Crowley and, at the death, Ross Byrne helped Ireland over the line against Australia last November a week after a below-par performance against Fiji which left Andy Farrell almost seething with frustration.

But since the start of the 2017 Six Nations, Sexton has missed only four games, losing three and winning one, when Ireland beat Italy in Rome in round two six years ago with Paddy Jackson at “10″. This followed the opening-round loss against Scotland in Murrayfield that year, since when Sexton has missed only two games, namely the losses to France last year and 12 months previously.

Ireland have lost three other games with him too, namely to England at home and Wales away in 2019, and England away in 2020. But in the 26 games with him since the visit to Rome six years ago, Ireland have won 21.


True to form, there’ll be a part of Andy Farrell who will be eagerly awaiting to see whether Ireland are better equipped to cope without Sexton.

“It’s a good point. We’ll see. That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? Progression in all areas and that’s one of them.”

Looking ahead to Ireland’s penultimate Six Nations game away to Scotland, the Irish head coach was asked on a scale of one to 10 how confident he would be that Sexton will be fit to face Scotland.

“Ten,” he answered, unequivocally.

As for Tadhg Furlong and Jamison Gibson-Park’s fitness for that game, he said: “They’ll be fit, yeah.”

On four occasions as defence coach with England, and eight times with Ireland in first that same capacity and latterly as head coach, Farrell has enjoyed a 100 per cent record against the Azzurri.

However, since Ange Capuozzo’s transformative effect and their liberation under Kieran Crowley into such an ambitious, fearless side, Italy have beaten Wales, Samoa and Australia, while also running France close in round one in Rome.

Nor did they let sizeable deficits against either France or England remotely discourage them. This Azzurri look the most dangerous Italian side Farrell will have encountered in the last dozen years.

“I would agree with that. I mean I thought England squeezed them really well a couple of weeks ago, but they fought hard, didn’t they, in the second half and hung on in there and made it a tough old second-half for England. It shows the character that they’ve got.

“You’re talking about all those individuals and the flair etc that they’ve got, but that’s all because of the systems that Kieran’s put in there. The systems, everyone’s accountable on attack. It reminds me a little bit of how Japan play where everyone is on their feet and everyone’s got a responsibility.

“It’s a tough enough place to defend against, isn’t it, when you’ve got 15 guys coming at you the whole time. There’s a reason why space is made for individuals to be able to put their best foot forward. And that’s because of the coaching that Kieran’s brought into them.”

As was also anticipated, Crowley has restored Paolo Garbisi at outhalf in one of three changes from the defeat against England.

Garbisi missed Italy’s opening two games with a sprained ligament in his right knee which he sustained before the turn of the year, but he returns after proving his fitness for Montpellier last weekend.

Pierre Bruno is restored to the wing, with Tommaso Menoncello moving to inside centre, while Simone Ferrari replaces Marco Riccioni at tighthead.

On the bench, Giovanni Pettinelli returns in place of the injured Jake Polledri, while Crowley has reverted to a conventional 5-3 split to accommodate Luca Morisi and Tommaso Allan.

Capuozzo’s counterpart will be Hugo Keenan in a match-up between the two outstanding full-backs of the Championship to date, as Farrell has resisted any temptation to delve into his depth chart at “15″, instead promoting six players from the replacements against France: Rónan Kelleher, Iain Henderson, Jack Conan, Craig Casey, Ross Byrne and Bundee Aki.

Keenan has started all but two of Ireland’s last 23 Tests at full-back, the exceptions being the win over Italy a year ago when Michael Lowry scored twice in his sole international to date, while Jimmy O’Brien played there against Fiji last November, but remains one of several yet to have any game time.

“They’re guys that played for Ireland before and are in good form, but you can’t give everyone a game,” said Farrell, adding that there has been plenty of rotation in training, including full-back, with O’Brien, Mack Hansen (presumably this weekend’s cover), Jack Crowley and Joey Carbery all featuring there.

The matchday squad of 23, plus those providing additional cover and the backroom team, boarded their scheduled Aer Lingus flight for the Eternal City on Thursday, but while the estimated 5,000-plus travelling Irish supporters can enjoy all that Bella Roma has to offer, not so Farrell and co.

“I said a couple of weeks ago I wish I was going to watch the French game. This is a nice trip for the fans, Rome is, it’s a great place to play, a great place to go. I was talking to some people this morning who are heading there, and there’s a lot of jealousy because it’s a fantastic weekend for the fans.

“For us, it’s nothing but business. We’ll get to go to Rome someday without the type of pressures we’ll face this weekend.”

Ireland v Italy, Saturday, Stadio Olimpico (kick-off 3.15pm local time/2.15pm Irish).

IRELAND: Hugo Keenan (Leinster/UCD); Mack Hansen (Connacht/Corinthians), Garry Ringrose (Leinster/UCD), Bundee Aki (Connacht/Galwegians); James Lowe (Leinster), Ross Byrne (Leinster/UCD), Craig Casey (Munster/Shannon); Andrew Porter (Leinster/UCD), Rónan Kelleher (Leinster/Lansdowne), Finlay Bealham (Connacht/Buccaneers), Iain Henderson (Ulster/Academy), James Ryan (Leinster/UCD, capt), Caelan Doris (Leinster/St Mary’s College), Josh van der Flier (Leinster/UCD), Jack Conan (Leinster/Old Belvedere). Replacements: Dan Sheehan (Leinster/Lansdowne), Dave Kilcoyne (Munster/UL Bohemians), Tom O’Toole (Ulster/Ballynahinch), Ryan Baird (Leinster/Dublin University), Peter O’Mahony (Munster/Cork Constitution), Conor Murray (Munster/Garryowen), Jack Crowley (Munster/Cork Constitution), Stuart McCloskey (Ulster/Bangor).

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times