Dublin is shut down. Rome is going to night curfews. The desire to give their people something to cheer about in the pandemic is extra inspiration for Ireland and Italy when they reboot Six Nations rugby on Saturday after a seven-month suspension.

Both teams return to the field with their countries in worse shape than when their match was originally scheduled on March 7.

A new wave of the coronavirus forced Ireland on Thursday to become the first European nation to reinstate a national lockdown. Italy is trying to avoid its own drastic measure but its increasingly harder. The past week has seen daily records of new infections; on Wednesday, cases exceeded 15,000.

The Irish have exempted professional sports from the lockdown, allowing the match at Lansdowne Road. Ireland captain Jonathan Sexton is deeply grateful.

“There's a sense that the whole country will be watching us,” Sexton says. “Most of the time we're very lucky that we are always being looked at but it's an even bigger responsibility (this week). Italy are in the same boat as us. Both teams will be very motivated.”

The pressure to deliver is mostly on Ireland, which still has a title shot. The Irish are four points behind co-leaders England and France with a game in hand. A bonus-point win over Italy will put Ireland in pole position going into the last round next week.

But Sexton says they can't afford to start the match underestimating Italy.

"We need to win the game first and foremost, that's most important because (the title) could come down to points difference and bonus points,” he says. "That will come later in the game, but we need to try and win the game first.

"Putting on a show isn't something we've talked about, but putting on a good performance is something we want to do.”

Ireland has won 19 of 20 Six Nations matches against Italy, giving coach Andy Farrell the confidence to experiment.

In the absence of the injured Jordan Larmour and Will Addison, Jacob Stockdale will make his first start at fullback, where he excelled for Ireland Under-20s in their run to the world junior final in 2016. Hugo Keenan, also in that under-20 side, will debut on the left wing in a pacy back three.

The uncapped Will Connors has received the No. 7 jersey ahead of Rugby World Cup players Peter O’Mahony, Josh van der Flier and Jack Conan.

While mainstay lock Iain Henderson is suspended, Tadhg Beirne is partnering with James Ryan .

Two more newcomers are in the reserves: Leinster prop Ed Byrne and New Zealand-born scrumhalf Jamison Gibson-Park.

Italy is rolling out three uncapped players of its own, notably Paolo Garbisi at flyhalf. The 20-year-old Garbisi is fresh from his Pro14 debut for Benetton this season, and will call the shots with scrumhalf Marcello Violi, making his first appearance in more than two years.

Winger Edoardo Padovani appears for the first time since the Rugby World Cup, and Jake Polledri makes a first start at No. 8.

Ready for debuts from the reserves are Benetton hooker Gianmarco Lucchesi and Calvisano utility back Federico Mori.

Italy hasn't beaten anyone in the competition in more than five years. But it has chances to spoil the title ambitions of Ireland this week and England next week, and give its country a morale boost.

“This country has been through a lot so we want to go to Ireland, give a good account of ourselves and make people proud because we are not only representing our families and our friends, but we are representing the whole of Italy," flanker Sebastian Negri says in his column in Talking Rugby Union. “There is a lot of excitement.”



Ireland: Jacob Stockdale, Andrew Conway, Garry Ringrose, Bundee Aki, Hugo Keenan, Jonathan Sexton (captain), Conor Murray; CJ Stander, Will Connors, Caelan Doris, James Ryan, Tadhg Beirne, Andrew Porter, Rob Herring, Cian Healy. Reserves: Dave Heffernan, Ed Byrne, Finlay Bealham, Ultan Dillane, Peter O’Mahony, Jamison Gibson-Park, Ross Byrne, Robbie Henshaw.

Italy: Jayden Hayward, Edoardo Padovani, Luca Morisi, Carlo Canna, Mattia Bellini, Paolo Garbisi, Marcello Violi; Jake Polledri, Braam Steyn, Sebastian Negri, Niccolò Cannone, Marco Lazzaroni, Giosuè Zilocchi, Luca Bigi (captain), Danilo Fischetti. Reserves: Gianmarco Lucchesi, Simone Ferrari, Pietro Ceccarelli, David Sisi, Johan Meyer, Maxime Mbanda’, Callub Braley, Federico Mori.


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