Ireland continue their defense of their Guinness Six Nations title against Italy in Dublin on Sunday afternoon.
Andy Farrell’s side started the season with a record bonus point away win against France, but the Azzurri narrowly lost to England.
Here, the PA news agency looks at some of the key talking points ahead of the clash at the Aviva Stadium.
Is it too early to talk about all-time Grand Slams?
The reigning champion was given the toughest opening round, but emerged as the only winner from the first round of the tournament. Ireland defeated pre-tournament favorites France 38-17 in Marseille to move into pole position and claim further championship glory. This match has been a title decider in each of the past two years, and could become a title decider again. Farrell’s side are expected to win this weekend and will also be favorites to win the following fixtures in Dublin against Wales and Scotland. A trip to Twickenham in the fourth round appears to be Ireland’s biggest hurdle in their quest to become the first team to win back-to-back Grand Slams since the Six Nations began in 2000.
Caelan Doris was seen as a potential successor to Johnny Sexton as Ireland captain. New captain Peter O’Mahony suffered a calf injury, meaning the 25-year-old has the chance to lead his country for the first time in just two games in the post-Sexton era. Doris made his debut in the opening Test of Farrell’s reign in 2020 and has since grown into a true world-class talent. He switched from number eight to openside flanker this weekend and scored two tries from this position when the Azzurri visited Dublin in August. Veteran flanker O’Mahony is set to turn 38 by the 2027 World Cup, making Doris’ temporary appointment an important audition for his future.
Big Joe’s big impact
Head coach Farrell raised some eyebrows by selecting rookie lock Joe McCarthy ahead of James Ryan and Ian Henderson at the Stade Velodrome. However, the big 22-year-old justified his decision with a dominant performance and was named the champion player in the first round. McCarthy’s Six Nations debut suggests he will star in Ireland’s second row for years to come. On Sunday, he will partner with recalled state teammate Ryan. The 27-year-old Leinster co-captain, who replaces Tadhg Beirne, will no doubt be desperate to remind people of his talent as he moves from being a candidate for Ireland’s new captain to competing for a regular starting spot.
Will the Azzurri Blues continue?
Italy suffered a narrow 27-24 defeat to England in Rome last weekend. However, they have never won on Irish soil during the Six Nations era. Their only victory over Ireland in 24 Championship games was a 22-15 victory at the Stadio Olimpico in 2013. Energetic full-back Ange Capozzo has returned from illness to strengthen the visiting side. However, new head coach Gonzalo Quesada lost powerful back-row forwards Sebastian Negri and Lorenzo Cannone to injury. Ireland are overwhelming favorites to win the championship, having won 17 consecutive games at home since 2021. If Italy somehow defies those expectations, it will be a bit of a story.
glimpse of the future
In addition to Doris being captain and the high-profile emergence of McCarthy, Farrell has selected 24-year-old Munster half-backs Jack Crowley and Craig Casey into his starting XI for the second time. Fly-half Crowley is seen as a long-term replacement for the retired Sexton and put in an encouraging performance in France, overcoming some nervy kicks. Having usurped Conor Murray at state level, Casey will now be keen to challenge first-choice scrum-half Jamison Gibson-Park on the international stage.