One of the greatest back rows ever can’t wait to face ‘the best team in the northern hemisphere’

IRELAND VISIT ROME for their Six Nations opener on Saturday and while the short-term thinkers amongst us will want Joe Schmidt’s men to start their campaign with two points, there is also a long game involved.

Just like four years ago, Italy are once again in Ireland’s pool for the upcoming World Cup so as well as getting a win, both sides will try to glean as much information as they can ahead of their autumn meeting.

One man who Ireland will need to shut down both this weekend and at the World Cup is the talismanic Italian captain, Sergio Parisse.

The all-action number eight has been one of the premier players in the northern hemisphere for the last decade and were he in any other team he would have received far more recognition.

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The Stade Francais player was bitterly disappointed with Italy’s effort in the 2014 Six Nations – they received the wooden spoon after losing all five of their games – and Parisse is demanding a better effort from his charges in 2015.

“We start off against Ireland and they are probably the best team in the northern hemisphere at the moment. It is important that we play them at home so we can start well,” Parisse said.

Home advantage is crucial for Italy as they have only won a single away match in the Six Nations since joining in 2000. And Ireland are fully aware how tough it is to leave Rome with a win, needing a Ronan O’Gara drop goal to escape with two points in 2011 and being soundly beaten in an injury-ravaged encounter in Declan Kidney’s final game in charge two years later.

But the Italian skipper is expecting a different Ireland side to turn up on Saturday, one that is full of confidence.

“Everyone saw Ireland play in November and they are a really complete team,” Parisse said.

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Italy have suffered contrasting fortunes against Ireland in the last two seasons, achieving that epic win in 2013 but being badly beaten at the Aviva Stadium last March. Parisse is looking at the game as a good way to measure his Italian side ahead of the World Cup.

“We beat them two years ago but last year they scored 4o points,” Parisse said.

“We are going to play them again in the World Cup so from a mental point of view it is important to be competitive. We need to see how far away from them we are or if the gap is still really big.”

One area where Italy look to have improved is at out-half. For years they’ve had a revolving door at that position and were often forced to pick the unreliable Luciano Orquera but the emergence of Kelly Haimona bodes well for Jacques Brunel’s men.

New Zealand-born Haimona impressed in the autumn and Parisse likes what he brings to the side.

“Fly-half has been a big problem for Italian rugby in the last ten years since Diego Dominguez stopped playing,” Parisse said.

“Kelly Haimona got the opportunity to play in November and he played well. From a physical point of view he is over 105 kilos. It is going to be important for the team to have another impact in defence.”

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