A win for Ireland against has been all but guaranteed in the Six Nations era. In fact, they have lost only once to the Italians since their introduction to the tournament.
With many fearing this afternoon could be a second Italian job in Rome, it is the right time to look back on that fateful day in 2013.
Before their admission to the championship, Ireland's head-to-head record against Italy was played 5, won 2, lost 3. Logically, the newbies might have regarded a win over Ireland as their surest route to dodging the wooden spoon.
But their entry to the renamed Six Nations coincided with Irish rugby's unexpected renaissance. It took the Italians 13 years to finally beat Ireland in the tournament, years after they'd beaten both Scotland and Wales.
The loss in Rome, when it finally arrived, occurred during the dog days of the Declan Kidney era. A darling and a Grand Slam champion in 2009, Kidney's goodwill began to ebb away after Ireland's loss to Wales in the 2011 Rugby World Cup quarter-final.
By the close of the 2013 Six Nations, the cup of goodwill was almost empty. The loss away to Scotland, which followed Kidney's dramatic decision to select Paddy Jackson ahead of Ronan O'Gara, may well have marked the point of no return. A fortnight after the 22-15 loss in the Stadio Olimpico, Kidney was sacked by the IRFU.
Wayne Barnes was the referee, as he had been for the game in Murrayfield. Prior to the tournament, Gerry Thornley wrote an article in The Irish Times detailing Ireland's strikingly poor record in games reffed by Barnes (it has since improved). The presumption was that our winning ratio under Barnes would improve now that he was reffing Ireland matches in Scotland and Italy. In the event, Ireland lost both games. Though only the most one-eyed of supporters could have blamed Barnes.
Ireland travelled a Rome a battered outfit, both physically and psychologically. There was little left to play for beyond a possible 3rd place finish. Remarkably, the wooden spoon wasn't out of the question. Conversely, Wales, whom Ireland had led 30-3 at one stage on the opening day, now had a shot at the Six Nations title.
Sympathetic commentators talked up the significance of the injury crisis, which was bizarre and unprecedented.
- Paul O'Connell was ruled out with a back injury before the tournament started.
- Johnny Sexton suffered a hamstring injury early in the England game and missed the rest of the tournament.
- Simon Zebo hobbled off against England with a foot injury and missed the rest of the tournament.
- Gordon D'Arcy began suffering from a foot injury after the England game and missed the rest of the tournament.
- Eoin Reddan suffered a broken leg after coming off the bench in the France match.
- Fergus McFadden suffered fractured rib in France game and missed the final game against Italy.
Other players like Cian Healy, Mike McCarthy, and Craig Gilroy missed the odd game through injuries.
The catalogue of injuries during the first four weeks had been ruinous. During the Italy game, it became comical.
The Ireland team which started the game:
Kearney, Gilroy, O'Driscoll, Marshall. L, Earls, Jackson, Murray, Heaslip, O'Brien, O'Mahony, Ryan, McCarthy, Ross, Best, Healy
On the 24th minute, Keith Earls, who made a habit of infuriating Brian O'Driscoll that spring, fell awkwardly after a tackle from Canale. He was hauled off for Luke Fitzgerald.
Three minutes later, Luke Marshall suffered his second concussion in two weeks and had to be whipped off. Kidney had taken heat all spring for resisting the calls to introduce the in-form Ian Madigan. Now, he was left with no option. Madigan was tossed into the fray, albeit only at inside centre.
Two minutes after that, with Ireland trailing 6-3, a head-bandaged Brian O'Driscoll stamped on Italian flanker Favarro at a ruck. Barnes flashed a yellow card and reversed a penalty which had been going to Ireland.
It's barely remembered now but the game in Rome was to be O'Driscoll's swansong in an Irish jersey. Now, he sat on a bench beside the running track, maintaining an expression of defiant nonchalance. It was a jarring finale.
On 36 minutes, we stepped fully into the realms of the farcical. Luke Fitzgerald, who had only come on 12 minutes earlier for Keith Earls, began limping. The religious were casting their eyes to heaven and asking why is this happening. The cynical and detached probably began laughing.
Fitzgerald was called ashore and Iain Henderson was introduced. Ireland, temporarily down to 14 men, now placed Peter O'Mahony on the wing. The newspapers, prophesying further doom on the injury front, had spent the week priming their readers for this eventuality by reminding the world that O'Mahony had been known to tog for Cork Con on the wing. He would now play 50 minutes of an international there.
"It was a mad one alright," were O'Mahony's opening comments to the press afterwards. "I certainly never saw myself playing 50 minutes on the wing for Ireland in a Six Nations game."
Things settled down then. The Italians were a bag of nerves for the remainder and made heavy weather of beating a depleted Ireland. It was clear there was psychological baggage there. Winger Vendetti went over for the only try of the game early in the 2nd half and Italy led 16-6.
From this commanding position, they seized up and allowed Ireland back in the game. With less than 15 remaining, Ireland had reduced their arrears to one point thanks to three unanswered penalties. The last of those followed a spirited and enterprising move which should have yielded seven points.
With an unlikely victory now within grasp, Donnacha Ryan was yellow carded for a dangerous challenge. Out-half Orquera landed the 40 metre kick and our chances began to recede again.
The final couple of minutes were spent in the Ireland half. Conor Murray was yellow carded for tripping an Italian player off the ball. In the lead-up, Ian Madigan had played scrum half but was tackled and fumbled. With time up Italy won another penalty which Orquera slotted to deliver a 22-15 victory.
Here are the 14 men that finished the game for Ireland
15 Rob Kearney, 14 Craig Gilroy, 13 Brian O'Driscoll, 22 Ian Madigan, 6 Peter O'Mahony, 10 Paddy Jackson, 21 Paul Marshall, 8 Jamie Heaslip, 7 Sean O'Brien, 20 Ian Henderson, 19 Devin Toner, 18 Stephen Archer, 16 Sean Cronin, 17 Dave Kilcoyne
The table was a throwback to the 1990s, an era Irish rugby thought it had left behind. In classic 90s fashion, Cardiff was the venue for our only win.
A 17-point victory for France over Scotland in the Stade de France that evening would have condemned Ireland to the wooden spoon (apologies to traditionalists). After Maxime Medard went over with 10 minutes remaining, the French only required another try to cross that threshold. A late score from Tim Visser rescued Ireland and France finished bottom of a bizarre championship.
On 2nd April, the IRFU announced that Declan Kidney's contract would not be renewed. Soon after, Joe Schmidt took over and Brian O'Driscoll was persuaded to give it one more year.