‘Even if Johnny Sexton isn’t here, Ireland are a very good team’

Murray Kinsella reports from Chicago

CONOR O’SHEA HAS rapidly become used to preparing his Italy team to face his native Ireland but this time around it’s a little bit different.

Away from the usual pressure of the Six Nations, neither nation will be at full strength for Saturday’s clash.

A November Test and the setting of Soldier Field in Chicago are rather novel, with O’Shea and Joe Schmidt both keen to use this fixture to add to the depth in their squads less than a year out from the World Cup.

Schmidt and O’Shea go head-to-head again on Saturday. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

With that in mind, O’Shea even named his starting team and replacements 10 days out from the game, allowing Ireland ample time to assess the possible strengths and weaknesses of their opposition.

From Italy’s point of view, there is an awareness that even if some of Ireland’s biggest names are missing, Schmidt’s team is going to be highly-capable and hungry.

“Even if Johnny Sexton isn’t here, they’re a very good team,” says centre Luca Morisi, who is set to make his return for Italy this weekend after a three-year absence.

“Garry Ringrose, Bundee Aki, they are top players. They have no second-choice, they are all at that level and we know it.

“We face Ireland every year, we know them. They’re a very good side, in the top three in the world now, so it will be a tough game. We’re preparing for that.”

Morisi will form the Italian midfield with captain Michele Campagnaro on Saturday, while the back three includes exciting young fullback Luca Sperandio.

Up front, 23-year-old number eight Renato Giammarioli is one to watch, while South African native Johan Meyer makes his debut in the back row. 

Morisi hasn’t played for Italy since 2015. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Benetton and Zebre’s encouraging form early on this season in the Pro14 means many of these less-experienced Italian players come into this fixture in a positive place mentally.

“We’re changing our mindset and our preparation and we all feel better physically, technically, in the skills,” says Benetton man Morisi. “It will be hard for Ireland too, I think.

“Players are more prepared now at this high level. If I think back to how I was when I first made the jump from junior to senior level, I was not as prepared as the young guys now.”

O’Shea’s influence as director of rugby of Italian rugby has been important in bringing about the improvements at club level in recent seasons, even if the result have yet to be seen in the national team. 

“He brings a different view of things,” says Morisi of O’Shea. “He came from Ireland, the way they work is pretty different. He brought Peter Atkinson for the physical preparation side, he brought Mike Catt from England, he won a World Cup, so it’s useful experience for us to improve our game and grow as people.

“He’s helped to change Italian rugby’s structure. We need more time to absorb that.”

This weekend should also see Ian McKinley take on his native nation, having been named on the bench by O’Shea.

McKinley has won three caps for Italy so far. Source: Giuseppe Fama/INPHO

The Benetton out-half hopes to add to his three caps and Morisi says McKinley is an inspiration to his team-mates, having overcome the loss of sight in one eye to play Test rugby.

“Ian is a lovely guy, I love the way he is,” says Morisi. “He can joke with us every day but at the same time, he can be like a coach because of his experience in coaching Udine.

“He has a strong mindset too because of what’s happened to him. He knows where he wants to go.

“He’s an example every day when you see what he has done. It’s incredible.”

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