Ireland seek to lift spirits with Italy win as Six Nations returns

Dublin (AFP) –


Ireland are determined to lift the mood of a country that is back in coronavirus lockdown by delivering a bonus-point win over Italy on Saturday that would lift them to the top of the Six Nations table.

The northern hemisphere tournament returns this weekend, seven months after it was put on hold as Covid-19 rampaged across Europe.

Five points from the match in Dublin would take Andy Farrell's men one point clear of England and France ahead of the final round of matches the following week.

Italy have yet to register a single point in the tournament but Ireland will be aware their opponents are a more vibrant attacking force than in the past and are best when fresh.

Should Ireland win and go on to beat France in Paris, points difference could decide the title, with Eddie Jones's England travelling to Rome for their final fixture.

- Virus cloud -

The match, overshadowed by the deepening coronavirus crisis, will take place in an empty stadium -- in stark contrast to the throaty roar of more than 50,000 fans who usually pack into Lansdowne Road.

It will make for the strangest of Test debuts for Leinster pair, wing Hugo Keenan and flanker Will Connors.

Ireland's players have spoken of feeling "privileged" at being able to play, with most of the rest of the economy shut down.

The country's death toll from coronavirus is nearing 2,000 as cases surge across Europe, setting the stage for a winter of harsh restrictions.

"We are very aware that it has been a very tough time for the country and many people have lost their jobs," said star second row forward James Ryan.

"We are very lucky and if we are able to fire up their weekend then brilliant for us."

But despite their ambitions to put on a show, Ireland have no intention of throwing caution to the wind.

Centre Garry Ringrose -- seen along with Ryan as a potential future captain -- warned fans not to expect "Harlem Globetrotter"-style rugby.

Johnny Sexton, the current skipper, said it was important the players did not let the burden of responsibility affect their performance.

"That's the balance that we have to find," the fly-half said. "We don't want it to be a burden.

"You guys are asking about the duty we feel, but we don't want that to weigh us down. We want to use it as an opportunity."

That is a message head coach Farrell has been keen to impress on his players this week -- that they must not to lose sight of the goal of winning the title in his first Six Nations in charge.

"We all know that every Irishman is a proud man and we all stick together when there's a bit of adversity and that's happening at this moment in time," said Farrell.

"But at the same time it's about the performance."

"We'll be judging the performance on Monday and let's hope we've lightened the mood of the country as well," added the 45-year-old Englishman.

- Italy motivated -

Sexton warned that the Italians would also be motivated to give their compatriots something to smile about, with the virus death toll in Italy now standing at more than 36,000.

Italy flanker Maxime Mbanda saw the effects of the disease close-up, volunteering as an ambulance driver with the "Croce Gialla" (Yellow Cross) in Parma.

He was rewarded this week with one of the country's highest awards -- the "Cavalieri al Merito della Repubblica", or 'Knights of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic'.

"This honour represents an important recognition for the commitment made by all of them (Yellow Cross workers and others in the health sector) during the lockdown and my commitment is to continue alongside the Parma Yellow Cross as well as my sporting commitments," said the 20-times capped Mbanda.