Ireland expect to be “battered up front and pushed to the limit” by Italy in today’s crucial World Cup encounter at London’s Olympic Stadium.
Captain Paul O’Connell has warned Ireland to expect the kind of punishing clash that the Azzurri threw up in the 2011 World Cup, when Leonardo Ghiraldini was banned for 15 weeks for gouging Cian Healy.
Ireland can secure quarter-final qualification with victory in today’s Pool D clash, while Italy must win to keep their slim last-eight hopes alive.
Munster lock O’Connell admitted Ireland are bracing themselves for a brutal dogfight, especially up front.
“They’re always incredibly physical games against Italy with the emphasis on the scrum, and big emphasis around their defence.
“There’s no doubt it’s going to be really tough, so that’s what we’ve been preparing for. There’s been a change in mindset because it’s a knockout game for us.
“I can’t remember a World Cup before where we’ve sat as a group on couches and watched all the games. “That builds the excitement for us. Personally I’m more excited than ever because there aren’t many more of them to come. I really enjoy the build-up.”
O’Connell will partner “beast” Iain Henderson at lock, with the 35-year-old skipper branding Devin Toner unlucky not to force a starting berth.
“Donnacha Ryan has done incredibly well to get back after injuries,” said O’Connell of Ireland’s second row picture.
“He’s a special kind of athlete in terms of being out for a year with Munster but yet when he came back he was still one of the fittest guys in the team. He has lightning pace as well. Devin is just a very relaxed guy but tends to not make any mistakes.
“He’s a brilliant carrier, brilliant hands, very relaxed way of running the line-out, and a terrific player.
“Iain has obviously been playing great rugby. He’s a real beast. So that’s just in the second row. It’s all across the team, that level of competition, I think.
“We scrummaged during the week and Cian Healy at the moment is constantly trying to have a crack at training. I suppose we talk about our preparation during the week all the time, it seems like a bit of a mantra to us, but that competitiveness in training leads us to preparing very well. You do not want to give away a penalty in training. You don’t want to drop the ball down in training, you don’t want to get a line-out wrong, that kind of stuff.
“You want to know your role inside-out. And competition for places really improves that standard.”
Meanwhile, Ireland have a special plan to combat “magician” Sergio Parisse, according to scrum-half Conor Murray.
Fit-again linchpin Parisse, pictured below, will transform the Azzurri, the Stade Francais talisman finally over the calf haematoma he had to have drained.
“Yes we do look at them completely differently when he’s in their team,” said Murray, when asked if Ireland must adapt to cope with the threat from the No.8.
“We have to be very switched on to what he can do, but hopefully we know how to cover that.
“Individually and collectively he will galvanise them, he’s a world-class player and we’ve seen him over the last few years what a good player he is and the threats he brings.
“He’s an X-factor player, brings something out of nothing and can be a real magician for them.
“So he’s pretty important for them.”
O’Connell believes Parisse has the same kind of influence on Italy that Brian O’Driscoll used to exude over Ireland. “He’s right up there with the best,” said O’Connell.
“I’ve sat with him after plenty of games because I’ve been captain and he’s been captain. He is a little bit like a Johnny Sexton, or a Sean O’Brien, or Jamie Heaslip.
“I think he makes people believe around him because he believes himself so much.
“We’ve looked at him a lot during the week, we guessed he was going to be back and was going to do everything he could to be back.
“He has everything. He catches high balls, he chases high balls, he chips, he can make turnovers on the ground, he intercepts, he’s a phenomenal carrier, if he has to go straight he has great footwork, he’s a brilliant passer, he pressurises the referee. He does it all.
“He’s right up with any of the great players who have played the game.”