BRIAN CLOUGH was one of the greats. The world is a poorer place without him. One of my favourite Cloughieism's revolved around the kid who thought an awful lot of himself but was spending a considerable amount of time in the reserve team . . . so he confronts Cloughie.

"Gaffer, I'm a little bit disillusioned . . . how come I've spent most of the season in the seconds."

"Well, quite frankly lad, I just think you're too good for the thirds."

I only now realise Italy's second team in the ERC isn't called Calvisanonil . . . they actually did score a few points in this season's competition . . . as indeed did Leinster's rivals Treviso, who produced some brilliant rugby. Calvisano unfortunately were pitched in Ze Gruppe of Ze Death and it's pretty hard to progress when Wasps, Leicester and Biarritz are engaged in hand-to-hand close-quarter combat.

So are Italy's players second graders? I don't think so anymore. I personally would have three, possibly four of their starting XV in the Irish side. What is encouraging for the Italians though is if you look at their team sheets . . .

there are no Matt Mostyns, Brendan Careys or Brent Cockbains thrown in. This side is pretty much as indigenous as you can get, which is a sign rugby in Italy has taken root and will flourish. This lot will take a fair bit of beating and, even when they are subdued, they will do a bit of damage before they hit the floor.

Ireland are too good a side to lose this one, so we'll concentrate on margin and performance, bearing in mind that Ireland only beat Italy 193 at home in last year's championship.

Firstly, let's just say that this is a new departure for Ireland. Even though the English or Irish bookies don't think so, everyone fancies Ireland for the championship.

They didn't make themselves favourites . . . people like me in the 'meeja' had to fill a column and this is what we came up with.

So Saint Eddie finds himself in the position of being possibly the first Irish coach ever in charge of a team where there is more than a chance of a giddy blink at the winners' enclosure. Could you imagine any of his predecessors being able to cope with any of that pressure?

A closed mouth gathers no foot . . . or so the saying doesn't go. Eddie O'Sullivan can't pretend they are not favourites so he has done the only thing he can do: address it, take it on board that they must prepare mentally as the team who are expected to win and play like that.

His squad are the reigning Triple Crown champions, a win against Tri-Nations champions South Africa crowning a very difficult autumn programme. The Leinster. . .Munster composite have won most of their Celtic League and European Cup games this season, and his squad have won more games than they lost, so it's not a case of pretending you're something you're not.

Having said that this will be a tough, horrible game. If Italy keep their composure and organisation tight without the ball it could be a very close game. The good thing about this Irish squad is they have implicit faith in the game plan O'Sullivan comes up with . . . and they stick to it.

O'Sullivan could decide to give the Riverdancers some ball to play with and cut Italy up from the off. After the match in Dublin he, almost defensively, praised Ireland for having the patience to break Italy down and pull away after the 70th minute.

He genuinely gave Italy credit for being a tough, physical side and the odds are he will instruct the Irish pack to engage, go up the middle from line-outs, go short side off offensive scrums and maul or box-kick slow ball. And all of this to be done outside Ireland's 40 metre line.

This all depends on how co-operative this formidable Italian pack is. The props Castrogiovanni and Lo Cicero were both born down a dark alley, grew up in a rendering plant, socialised with Genghis Khan and Attila the Hun and ate unwashed cannibals for afternoon tea.

Castrogiovanni was on my team of the championship last year . . . if Italian players qualified for the Lions this fella would be your test starter. As for Lo Cicero, I don't think Cicero could take a scrum that low. We'll get a good idea how John Hayes and Reggie Corrigan will fare against the likes of Julian White of England and Pieter de Villiers of France after reviewing this one. Games are never decided by the scrummaging contest, but the margin certainly will change as a result.

Remember all those set plays in the autumn where Brian O'Driscoll and Geordan Murphy stood directly behind the Irish scrum and made their move as the ball was put in? The aim was to confuse . . . get quickly to one side of the scrum at pace and get one-on-one with half a field to play with. If it comes right they will score . . . if the scrum comes back half a yard all bets are off. They now have Gordon D'Arcy to add even more danger. Hold that scrum down lads, please.

The back-row is a small bit of a worry. I watched Simon Easterby play in the autumn and his performances, by his standards, were poor. I watched the video for confirmation and he wasn't doing the work he normally does.

Even operating at that level, he is the best blind-side in the country. For Ireland to succeed, though, Easterby needs to be standing on half a hundred weight of zip firelighters.

O'Sullivan was succinct when he spoke of Dennis Leamy and Johnny O'Connor.

Leamy spends a lot of his season in Pamplona . . . his game is as a power runner.

He is the right choice for the Italian game. Ireland need to meet fire with fire. The Scottish game may have to be viewed differently; O'Connor might be the man for that one.

But Leamy, quality player he is, must blend in quickly.

Most importantly, he must be aware of where his two fellow back-rowers are.

The Italian back-row is an outstanding unit and its leader Mauro Bergamasco is Italy's best player. I watched him play for Stade Francais in the ERC - once again, if he was Lions qualified, he'd start.

In all three rows, Ireland will have their hands full, so it will be in the minutiae of team work where they will garner that extra something.

I read somewhere that, American Airlines, by taking one olive out of every salad in first class saved $40,000 over the financial year. So it's the little non-obvious things that will help Ireland today.

The law makers and the referees . . . those colostomy bags of sport . . . have decided to change the law in relation to playing the ball in the tackle on the ground, with the player under pressure to release instantly. And this is announced two weeks before the first match of the championship. Execution and a shallow grave for the plonkers who decide these things.

It's plausible from my understanding of the new rule that you could blow your whistle every time the ball carrier is brought to ground.

My reading of this situation would be that it would be easier and safer to kick deep rather than run and lose the ball in contact or risk the penalty trying to retain the ball too forcefully.

Either way, O'Sullivan will have briefed and instructed his troops far more thoroughly than John Kirwan will and they will deal with the high frustration levels with the penalty count. Ireland will commit far less infringements and will be far better equipped in midfield to steal ball at the breakdown and counter-attack.

I don't see any produce from Fyffes floating around today; I just hope Ireland's players all get off the pitch in one piece, especially Gordon D'Arcy.