The relative weakness of this year's championship is highlighted by the fact that an Irish side that is crippled by injuries to key names was within a few kicks of going for a grand slam this weekend. The English side who will have that target on Saturday are also far from vintage.
For a second season in a row Ireland had to contend themselves with a draw against France, when a victory was within their grasp. For the third game is succession, they dominated possession and territory but failed to capitalise. The three players who came in for most criticism in the defeat to Scotland, Paddy Jackson, Rory Best, and Jamie Heaslip, all performed admirably.
Italy gave a great account of themselves against England, dominating the second half and were probably a bit unlucky not to earn a draw. For the first time they kept their try-line intact against England. That impressive display followed disappointing defeats to Wales and Scotland, which took some of the gloss off their famous opening weekend win over France. Their discipline remains a problem, as evidenced by the 15 penalties that they conceded at the weekend.
Ireland have a remarkable record against Italy, having won all 13 of the previous meetings in this competition and it is almost 15 years since Italy recorded their second of two test wins over Ireland. The 13-11 win at the Stadio Flaminio two years ago was a rare example of a truly competitive encounter between the sides. The average margin of victory in this fixture has been almost 20 points since Italy joined the championship in 2000.
The Irish injury list continues to grow, with Eoin Reddan breaking his leg against France and serious knocks to a number of players. However, Declan Kidney has been boosted by the return of Craig Gilroy to the starting XV and Brian O' Driscoll, Luke Marshall, and Donnacha Ryan have all passed fitness tests after picking up knocks against France. Paul Marshall has been drafted in as cover at scrum half and Devin Toner replaces Donncha O' Callaghan on the bench. Jonathan Sexton was injured in training so Paddy Jackson will continue at fly half.
The Papal conclave may have seen Martin Castrogiovanni relegated to the second most famous Argentine in Rome but the Leicester Tigers man is Italian rugby's cult hero and a linchpin of the Azzurri's front row. He is their main injury doubt but they will have been pleased with the performance of Lorenzo Cittadini, who came on for Castro' last week.
Key area and verdict
The Italian scrum is perhaps the second strongest in the competition behind England. Ireland only won one third of their scrums against France, while Italy just about edged England out in the battle up front.
The Irish defense has been outstanding this season. Since the Welsh second-half blitz in the first week of the championship, Declan Kidney's men had not conceded a try until Louis Picamoles' late try last weekend. Indeed, Ireland have only conceded 16 tries in their last 16 championship games and have only shipped more than one try on two occasions over that period.
Italy have added a bit more creativity in the backline but still rely heavily on their pack and their inspirational captain Sergio Parisse. Their international and club sides have gradually improved over the last few years. This weekend with be Italy's 70th in the Six Nations championship. They only won three of the first 35 but are looking for their eighth win in the last 35 on Saturday. Victory would mean that the Italians win more than one game in a championship season for only the second time but I think that they'll just come up short.
Ireland have won 45 of their 69 games since Italy joined the championship, just two behind England and they should be able to salvage something from a disappointing season with yet another victory on Italian soil. Ireland struggled to handle the outstanding number eight of the tournament last week, and will have to fare better on the next best this weekend. However, I feel that the Irish defense will be able to cope with anything that Italy throw at them.
I'll be backing Ireland to cover the 3.5 point handicap and to lead at half time and full time but the standout bet for me in the 2.305/4 available on Ireland winning by under 12.5 points. Italy are much more competitive than in recent years and since the first half blitz against Wales Ireland haven't looked like scoring tries too freely.
Back Ireland -3.5 points 1.684/6
Back Ireland/Ireland 1.865/6
Back Ireland under 12.5 points 2.35/4