If we look at the last game between the two teams, Italy dominated two of the set-pieces: the scrum and the lineout.
Mallett knew from late January that both Jamie Heaslip [ankle] and Stephen Ferris [knee cartilage] would not be featuring for Ireland against Italy in the teams’ first game of the 2011 Six Nations, and also that Dennis Leamy would almost certainly start … that gave Ireland three stumps in the backrow, none of Wallace, O’Brien or Leamy exceeding 188cm [6’2″].
Added to that, Paul O’Connell had suffered a lengthy absence due to his hip injury/infection, an absence that was compounded by the ban he received for his ridiculous red card against the Ospreys in December. O’Connell had played just two full games for Munster in ten months going into the Italian match … he was seriously undercooked.
Italy proceeded to victimise us at the lineout with an exceptionally tall backrow of Parisse and Josh Sole at 196cm [6’5″] and Sandro Zanni at 193cm [6’4″] – Zanni and Parisse took eight lineouts, while our backrow took none.
With Ferris and Heaslip in the starting lineup we have two backrow forwards who are very capable lineout operators and will very likely negate that advantage. A fully fit O’Connell is amongst the very best lineout operators in the world, and the Italians had significant struggles against the American lineout. Kudos go to Leinster old boy Gavin Hickey, the Eagles’ lineout coach, on that count.
The Mole would expect Italy to start Mauro Bergamasco at openside, who, for all his experience and excellence around the park, provides nothing like the lineout threat of Josh Sole.
Secondly, while the Italians have a serious corps of scrummagers [Lo Cicero, Perugini, Ongaro, Ghiraldini and Castrogiovanni] in the front row, they didn’t get any change out of an Australian scrum that we clearly had the upper hand on in Auckland. The scrums during the Six Nations encounter between the teams has to be put in the context of it being Mike Ross’ international debut, and that it was the first time our front five had ever played together in a competitive match.
We have since played France three times and England twice, whom I’d rank as being on a par with the Italian scrum. Sure, we’ve had our ups and downs against them, but nothing like the hammering we took from Italy back in February.
As impressive as Italy’s scrum looked today against the USA, we also had the Yanks going backwards at a rate of knots with Tom Court in harness, who has never been renowned as a devastating scrummager. If we can get parity against the Italian scrum – which I think we will – we have far more than them in other parts of the pitch.