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6N: Ireland near full strength to try and find mojo in Rome

February 22, 2019
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Ireland's Keith Earls scores their third try during the the Six Nations rugby union international match between Scotland and Ireland at Murrayfield, Edinburgh, Scotland, Saturday Feb. 9, 2019. (Graham Stuart/PA via AP)

ROME (AP) — Ireland isn’t mucking around.

Unlike Wales in the previous round of the Six Nations, there was no thought by the Irish of experimenting against Italy on Sunday at the Stadio Olimpico.

Then again, both rugby teams’ state of affairs was different. Wales won its opener against France, clearing the way for its big guns to avoid Italy and be saved for England this weekend. However, Ireland lost its opener to England then scraped past Scotland, and its middling state was underlined when the likes of Tadhg Furlong, Sean O’Brien, Conor Murray, and Jonathan Sexton were retained to face Italy in a team close to full strength.

It’s not rest they need, it’s more time in the cauldron.

Rugby’s best team in 2018 has yet to click this year, and coach Joe Schmidt hopes they can turn it on at the expense of Italy, a team the Irish have spanked for 56, 63 and 58 points in the last three years.

The defending Six Nations champions likely thought they would still be in the title conversation in this third round, but they’re chasing the crown and have to hope Wales beats England on Saturday so their final-round fixture will still be relevant.

Schmidt thought poorly enough of his team’s displays so far to rest only two; Captain Rory Best, who is being managed so he can reach his fourth Rugby World Cup this year at the age of 37, and lock James Ryan, the team workhorse.

Giving playmakers Sexton and Murray a run was a no-brainer for Schmidt because they need the game time. Sexton’s progress this year has been handicapped by a knee injury, and then a head knock against Scotland. Murray still isn’t on song after coming back from a neck injury.

On the other hand, Schmidt was giving hooker Sean Cronin, lock Ultan Dillane, and No. 8 Jordi Murphy chances to bank more credit for Rugby World Cup selection.

Cronin, a reserve in 58 of his 67 tests, starts a Six Nations match for the first time, and is up against the stalwart Leonardo Ghiraldini, Italy’s stand-in skipper in the absence of Sergio Parisse, who was concussed last weekend in club action. Another key forward, Sebastian Negri, was too ill to play, so Italy was fielding flankers Maxime Mbanda, playing his first test in a year, and Jimmy Tuivaiti, making his first start.

Also, scrumhalf Tito Tebaldi will finally play his 30th cap for Italy. He was to start the opener against Scotland but withdrew in the warmup because of a back complaint. That kept him out of the following Wales match. Tebaldi was the only change in the backline.

Italy’s losing run in the championship is up to 19 games and four years. And Ireland is not in the mood to be charitable.

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Lineups:

Italy: Jayden Hayward, Edoardo Padovani, Michele Campagnaro, Luca Morisi, Angelo Esposito, Tommaso Allan, Tito Tebaldi; Abraham Steyn, Maxime Mbanda, Jimmy Tuivaiti, Dean Budd, Federico Ruzza, Simone Ferrari, Leonardo Ghiraldini (captain), Andrea Lovotti. Reserves: Luca Bigi, Cherif Traore, Tiziano Pasquali, David Sisi, Alessandro Zanni, Guglielmo Palazzani, Ian McKinley, Tommaso Castello.

Ireland: Rob Kearney, Keith Earls, Chris Farrell, Bundee Aki, Jacob Stockdale, Jonathan Sexton, Conor Murray; Jordi Murphy, Sean O’Brien, Peter O’Mahony (captain), Quinn Roux, Ultan Dillane, Tadhg Furlong, Sean Cronin, Dave Kilcoyne. Reserves: Niall Scannell, Jack McGrath, John Ryan, Iain Henderson, Josh van der Flier, John Cooney, Jack Carty, Andrew Conway.

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