Ireland, Italy in a best-of-the-rest test at Soldier Field
CHICAGO (AP) — Ireland vs. Italy is merely a curtain-raiser on Saturday at Soldier Field.
It is the appetizer to the main meal that is the United States vs. New Zealand Maori.
And the lineups say so.
Ireland, the Six Nations champion, has left at home the likes of captain Rory Best, vice-captain Jonathan Sexton, Peter O’Mahony, Rob Kearney, and Keith Earls.
Bigger fry are around the corner — Argentina and New Zealand — and the Rugby World Cup is less than a year away.
Italy, the Six Nations wooden-spooner, has done the same. Injuries, a fixture outside the normal window, and the need to save some ammo for the Wallabies and All Blacks caused the Italians to leave behind the likes of captain Sergio Parisse, Tommaso Allan, Matteo Minozzi, and Leonardo Sarto.
Italy coach — and former Ireland back — Conor O’Shea planned well enough to pick his side an unusual 11 days before the match. There are only two survivors from the Six Nations matchup in Dublin in February, front-rowers Luca Bigi and Nicola Quaglio.
Center Michele Campagnaro will captain Italy for the first time, and there will be a debut for South African flanker Johan Meyer, who could be replaced by another debutant, New Zealander Jimmy Tuivaiti.
Ireland has four surviving starters from the same match, in forwards Jack McGrath and Jack Conan, and backs Bundee Aki and Jacob Stockdale, the player of the Six Nations for scoring seven tries in five matches.
While Ireland looks light on caps, the names are still familiar: Rhys Ruddock is captain, having previous led on the June 2017 tour of the U.S. and Japan; there’s next-big-thing Jordan Larmour; and flyhalf Joey Carbery, the heir apparent to Sexton.
Carbery made his debut replacing Sexton during the historic first win over the All Blacks at Soldier Field in 2016, and this will be only his fourth start.
“It’s cool to be back,” Carbery says. “Great memories, this is where it started. It’s weird, it doesn’t feel like two years since we were last here.”
Even with uncapped backs Ross Byrne and Will Addison in the reserves, Ireland still ought to be too good again for the Italians. The Irish have lost to them only once in 21 years.
But Italy doesn’t carry as much baggage as it used to. Beating Japan in the second test in Kobe in June ended an eight-test losing run, and a two-year losing streak away from home.
Lock George Fabio Biagi, who has enjoyed only two wins in 22 caps since 2014, believes in his side’s ability.
“The team chosen by Conor O’Shea can put them in trouble,” Biagi says. “We have a very motivated group of young people, like Johan Meyer, who want to contribute to the Azzurri cause. In the last Six Nations we had some problems against Ireland. Now we are a different team, and matured.”