Italy and Ireland both promise a 'proper Test match'

When Michele Lamoro was asked on Friday what weaknesses his team could exploit as they tried to topple Ireland, the Italy captain smiled ruefully and took a breath.

"The main strength of Ireland is that they don't have a real vulnerability," Lamoro said, before reeling off a check list of the qualities that have made Ireland the world's top-ranked team.

"They are very precise in what they do. They can keep the ball for 30 phases. They can defend for long periods. They are very physical. They can play well with their backs. They can play well with their forwards."

Ireland come to Rome for Saturday's Six Nations game on an 11-match winning run that includes two summer victories in New Zealand and another in November over world champions South Africa.

Ireland's last loss was over a year ago, a six-point defeat in France that ultimately decided last season's Six Nations. The Irish took revenge when they beat the French 32-19 in Dublin in the last round.

Ireland have won 29 of the last 30 meetings with Italy. In the last three Six Nations they have won by a cumulative score of 155-33 culminating in a 57-6 thrashing last season when the Azzurri were deep into a 36-match losing streak.

Yet Ireland coach Andy Farrell, arguing his team would not be complacent, was able to point to some shoots of pale blue growth since then.

Italy edged Wales by a point in Cardiff last March to end their winless streak and then beat Australia, also by a point, in November. They only lost in the dying minutes to France in this season's Six Nations opener.

"Over the last 12 months they've been super impressive," Farrell said. "We're in for a tough game. There's a reason they are doing well."

"We saw how they played against France. They ripped Australia apart," he said before reciting his own list of the opponent's strength: "They look a lot fitter, a lot more cohesive. They are energised. There's a belief in how they play the game."

- 'Total combat' -

In the game of pre-match press-conference poker, Lamoro was asked on Friday about Farrell's compliments and agreed.

"I think we are pretty dangerous," he said. "We have lots of options and that creates doubts in the defence."

Yet Farrell has shuffled his team. Some of his six changes to the starting XV are a reflection of the attritional nature of the competition, with Tadhg Beirne, Rob Herring and Johnny Sexton all out nursing injuries.

Ireland start with a new halfback pairing with Ross Byrne and Craig Casey both making their first Six Nations starts.

"We've full respect for Italy but it is about us and our performance and making sure we improve in a few areas," said Farrell.

Italy, meanwhile, welcome back one of those attacking options: Paolo Garbisi.

The fly-half was one of the heroes of the pivotal win in Cardiff.

"That day was a memorable day for our rugby,"  winger Edoardo Padovani recalled on Friday. "It had been seven years since Italy had won. The burden was starting to feel a bit heavy.

"We needed a victory," he said. "Our confidence is absolutely different."

"This match against Ireland, the world No.1, is going to require 85, 90 minutes of total combat. It's a great opportunity to see where we are."

In order to win, Italy need to cut the number of penalties they give away and capitalise on any chance that comes their way because there may not be that many.

Lamoro acknowledges those weaknesses but believes that, despite the Irish strengths, his team have a genuine chance.

"The thing is to put them under pressure," he said. "They can concede something when they feel the pressure when they don't feel comfortable."

Farrell offered a warning for his players.

"Italy are chasing that win at home and we're a big scalp

"This is a proper test match for us."