Ireland captain Paul O’Connell is delighted to be going into a game he expects to be a bruising encounter with Italy accompanied by the second row partner he describes as a “beast”, Iain Henderson.
O’Connell, 35 and in his last campaign for his country, said Sunday’s clash will be a no holds-barred contest at London Olympic Stadium with the stakes extremely high for both sides.
The Irish – two-time Six Nations champions under coach Joe Schmidt – can reach the quarter-finals with a victory whilst defeat for Italy would end their chances of reaching the knockout stages.
An Ireland win would also guarantee France a quarter-final place with the two of them facing off in Cardiff next weekend to decide who finishes top and avoids playing defending champions New Zealand in the last eight.
O’Connell, though, is focused on clearing the Italy hurdle with memories of a bad-tempered 2011 clash – which the Irish comfortably won 36-6 – still fresh in his memory.
Italy hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini – who is injured – was banned for 15 weeks for gouging Cian Healy, who is on Ireland’s replacements bench.
“I’ve no doubt we’ll be battered up front and pushed to the limit,” said O’Connell, who is to leave Munster and finish his career at three-time European champions Toulon.
“They’re always incredibly physical games against Italy with the emphasis on the scrum, and big emphasis around their defence.
“There’s no doubt it’s going to be really tough, so that’s what we’ve been preparing for.”
Italy captain Sergio Parisse is not at peak fitness but he is ready to push himself to the limit to seize the “small chance” of beating Ireland.
The 32-year-old Argentina-born No.8 missed a Pool D loss to France and an edgy victory over Canada whilst recovering from an operation to drain a haematoma on a calf.
He could not have picked a harder match to return than against the Six Nations champions who have made light work of Canada and Romania and need one more win to secure their quarter-final place.
“Tomorrow I may be a bit below my best but I will push myself to do my best and even when I am tired I will try to lift myself mentally,” Parisse said.
“It was really hard to be ready.
“I’m not as fit as I want to be to play an international match because my calf caused me some problems.
“I won’t be 100 per cent, but there cannot be any excuses and I will keep fighting to be mentally strong and help the boys.”
Parisse said the game was a chance to make history, a small chance.
“I can’t say if we have a great chance of winning, but we have to fight and we will give everything to take this chance.”
Ireland team to play Italy:
Simon Zebo, Tommy Bowe, Keith Earls, Robbie Henshaw, Dave Kearney, Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray, Jamie Heaslip, Sean O’Brien, Peter O’Mahony, Paul O’Connell (capt), Iain Henderson, Mike Ross, Rory Best, Jack McGrath.
Reserves: Sean Cronin, Cian Healy, Nathan White, Devin Toner, Chris Henry, Eoin Reddan, Ian Madigan, Luke Fitzgerald.
Italy team to play Ireland:
Luke McLean, Leonardo Sarto, Michele Campagnaro, Gonzalo Garcia, Giovanbattista Venditti, Tommaso Allan, Edoardo Gori, Sergio Parisse (capt), Simone Favaro, Francesco Minto, Josh Furno, Quintin Geldenhuys, Lorenzo Cittadini, Andrea Manici, Matias Aguero.
Reserves: Davide Giazzon, Michele Rizzo, Dario Chistolini, Alessandro Zanni, Mauro Bergamasco, Guglielmo Palazzani, Carlo Canna, Tommaso Benvenuti.