The delayed Six Nations resumes this weekend with title hopefuls Ireland bidding to claim a bonus-point win at home to Italy...
"Ireland have won their last nine games against Italy and are overwhelming favourites to extend this run this weekend which could keep the title in their hands."
Ireland v Italy
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Ireland target big home win
After a seven month delay, the longest Six Nations competition in history will come to an end over the next week. The pandemic left the conclusion of this year's championship in significant doubt but Ireland will complete the fourth round of fixtures this weekend, at home to Italy, before the title will be decided in the final round on Saturday, October 31.
Realistically the title looks to be between 1.374/11 favourites England and 4.47/2 shots Ireland. The Irish are fourth in the table but actually have destiny within their own hands. Bonus-point wins against Italy and in France will crown them as champions although leaders England's task looks much easier with only a trip to Italy awaiting them on the final day.
Andy Farrell's first Six Nations game in charge resulted in a scrappy 19-12 home win against Scotland in February. The hosts were reliant on Johnny Sexton with the fly-half scoring all of Ireland's points in Dublin. Ireland extended their winning start in the tournament by defeating Wales 24-14 at the Aviva Stadium in a bonus-point success.
Ireland were given a swift reality check at Twickenham after being outplayed in their 24-12 defeat to England. The World Cup finalists dominated, opening up a 17-0 half-time lead, with Ireland producing a forgettable performance. Second-half tries from Robbie Henshaw and Andrew Porter could not mask the visitors' deficiencies which ruined any prospect of an Ireland Grand Slam.
Sexton has recovered from a minor hamstring injury to captain Ireland this weekend. Leinster pair Hugo Keenan and Will Connors make their international debut with the former starting on the left wing and Connors lining up as openside flanker. Conor Murray renews his half-back partnership with Sexton as he starts at scrum-half for Farrell's side.
Italy bid to end losing run
Italy, who hand a debut to 20-year-old Benetton fly-half Paolo Garbisi, are once again propping up the table after losing their opening three Six Nations matches. A 42-0 hammering in Wales was an ominous start before a much-improved performance in Paris despite losing 35-22. Italy's attacking limitations were underlined in the third round after a 17-0 home defeat to Scotland. It extended their losing run in the competition to 25 games.
Ireland have won their last nine games against Italy and are unbackable 1.021/50 favourites to extend this run this weekend which could keep the title in their hands. Farrell has called on his team to produce a dynamic performance in Dublin and the hosts certainly should win with something to spare. Whether they can cover the significant handicap is another story.
The handicap mark is set at 28 points and Ireland have been workmanlike, rather than flamboyant, during their initial games under Farrell. With no fans to lift them in the stadium, a fast start is not guaranteed and their last two wins over Italy saw them fail to win by more than 19 points. Italy could be competitive early on and preference is to back more tries in the second half, during a comfortable Ireland win with the try bonus point on their agenda, rather than backing a handicap mark which looks in the balance.
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