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Leinster and Munster stars expect physical encounter

Guinness PRO12 Editor

4 Feb 2010

Leinster No8 Jamie Heaslip and Munster lock Paul O’Connell are expecting a huge physical battle when Ireland take on Italy this weekend.

The reigning Six Nations Champions host last season’s Wooden Spoon winners at Croke Park on Saturday afternoon.

And despite the difference in fortunes for the two sides last time out, Heaslip is convinced he and his team-mates will be given anything but an easy ride.

"Italy are a class outfit and they might feel they have something to prove," said Heaslip.
"We’ll have to bring our ‘A game’ anyway because that’s the way this championship has gone over the last couple of years.

"We play against the Italian players in the Heineken Cup – they’re big and they bash you about. They hit hard, have some skilful players and seriously good finishers."

While Heaslip insists Ireland won’t be underestimating the Azzuri, he admits that the mood within the camp is a positive one.

Such an admission is hardly surprising given that 2009 brought a first Grand Slam in 61 years, plus a draw with Australia and a memorable win over World Champions South Africa.

More of the same would be the perfect way to start 2010.

"It’s been pretty much the same feeling as last season," added Heaslip.

"We had a good year and people are talking about expectations, but that’s external.

“We’ve set the bar high for ourselves and we’re concerned about meeting that standard that we’ve set." 

Those sentiments are echoed by Munster skipper O’Connell who believes that familiarity and understanding within the Ireland set up has allowed them to develop a solid base on which to build.

The 2009 Lions leader stresses that the hard work that brought about last year’s success will stand Ireland in good stead to become only the fifth team to secure back-to-back clean sweeps in Europe’s premier international tournament. 

"This time a year ago we’d worked hard in the autumn, but really had a poor autumn coming into the Six Nations and we really needed to produce something special and that’s what we did," said O’Connell. 

"So I think we’ve a lot of confidence and a lot of knowledge of what we’re doing now under our belt. We’ve come a long way in terms of how we’re going to play and things we’re going to do. 

"We’re a lot more used to the coaches we have and the way they expect to have things done, so I suppose it leaves us in a position maybe where we haven’t as much to do as we did this time last year."

But, like Heaslip, O’Connell isn’t getting carried away.

The man who led Munster to Magners League glory in May last year won’t be taking the Italian challenge lightly, especially as last season’s victory in Rome didn’t arrive in quite the manner O’Connell would have liked despite the 38-9 scoreline. 

"Last year, I don’t think we played that well and I don’t think we did the work up-front that we need to do against Italy," added O’Connell. 

"I never felt that game was under control. I remember a few times we went out the back off five-man line-outs early on and really the big thing with Italy is that you need to take them on. 

"Set-pieces are very strong for them and you really need to work hard and take them on there and see what happens after that. 

"The longer Italy are in the competition, the better they get, particularly up front which is where their real strength is. There’s no doubt that it will be a big forward battle first and foremost, and we need to perform there before the backs can do anything. 

"Every year we always say it, it’s probably our toughest game physically. It’s going to be a very tough one to start off with."