How the Italian game was used as a launching pad for international careers

It doesn’t matter to Michael Lowry who will be the opponent on Sunday when the full-back makes his Ireland debut against Italy at the Aviva Stadium.

History and bookies odds confirm the widely held belief that Kieran Crowley’s side will not snap a 34-game losing streak in the Guinness Six Nations this week and avoid their 100th Championship loss since joining the five existing in 2000.

Yet while tomorrow’s contest will be seen largely by a near-full house through the lens of how many tries the home side can run and an otherwise tight title race could, sadly, come to an end. to sum up which team manages to score the most points against the unlucky and winless Italians will not be a challenge to be taken lightly by anyone in the Ireland squad given the chance to enter the ground in Dublin tomorrow afternoon.

And especially not Lowry and the other members of the team of the day who tomorrow will make significant progress in their international careers.

As well as Lowry receiving the number 15 shirt as Hugo Keenan takes a back seat for the first time since making his debut against Italy in October 2020, Ryan Baird gets a first Six Nations start almost a year after his bow test against the same opposition as he replaces the injured James Ryan in the Irish second line.

There is also a first international start at hooker for Leinster’s Dan Sheehan in his fifth appearance for the national team while that trio could be joined by Ulster lock Kieran Treadwell, who is in line to make his first start in the competition from the bench five years after his third and final cap against Fiji in November 2017.

It would be hard not to see a trend emerging. It’s a device that many head coaches have used to either strap in new players or add another layer of experience to team members who aren’t normally identified as nailed starters.

The aforementioned quartet will join good company when the opportunity arises, as of the extended squad currently in the Ireland camp, another 12 of them have made their international or Six Nations debuts or first league starts, against Italy.

Head coach Andy Farrell also used the game to cap open flanker Will Connors and loose prop Ed Byrne in 2020 when fellow Leinstermen Keenan and scrum-half Jamison Gibson-Park also bowed out .

Keenan and Gibson-Park have both become regulars since, with the former finally filling the void created by Rob Kearney’s retirement after 14 years and 84 of his 95 caps as a starting fullback – and you can guess who Kearney has it against. made his Six Nations debut in cap number two. They are also not the only current members of the squad to have tried their luck when a departure against Italy presented itself.

While maintaining the utmost respect for Italy, successive coaches have used this game against them as an opportunity, a point of reference to assess younger or newer players in their group.

The current holder is certainly of the same opinion, although this week, in the middle of the game, sandwiched between two fallow weekends in the Championship, Farrell was also aware of the need to rotate his front row stars between the second rounds, this defeat against France. , and the fourth round, a tough trip to Twickenham to face England on March 12.

He also has the opportunity to reintroduce James Lowe to the squad after the winger missed the first two games through injury.

It’s a complicated puzzle to complete, as the head coach suggested yesterday after naming his squad, while focusing on the fundamental requirement to get back to winning ways and keep the pressure on the title favorites , France.

“It’s about winning Test matches and make no mistake about it, we still have a chance to win the championship,” Farrell said. “It’s all about playing in the game and getting the result that we’re looking for and at the same time when you get to that point you’ve been together for a while people raise their hands and people deserve an opportunity.

“It’s not like you come into the summer and you’re missing 13 guys and giving people an opportunity. This is a proper test match which means a lot to everyone in this group, so it is this group’s responsibility to perform at the highest level and these guys know that responsibility and take it on board.

“We also want to see them under that kind of pressure.”

There’s no better arena than a Six Nations game to gauge a player’s readiness for the rugby test and there’s no doubt that these aren’t Irish caps handed out on the spot. of head.

Still, if Italy are next in the league schedule, you’ll know there’s an opportunity for a fresh face to make a name for themselves and lay a solid foundation for a bright future in the green shirt.

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