JOHN KIRWAN is nothing if not clever. He knows that in a competition containing some of the biggest names in world rugby, the only way to garner any attention for a team like Italy is to approach things in an off-the-wall manner.

And so in he walks, whistling 'Santa Claus Is Coming To Town' as though it's the catchiest tune in the world. He tells you about his hand-made shoes and where you can get a pair if you fancy them. Then, he shares your moans about the taxi service in his new home town, Treviso, and offers to pick you up the next time you're stuck for a lift over there. In fact, by the time he advises you to bring plenty of money to Rome because there's some amazing bargains in the sales right now, you wonder will you ever be able to steer him around to the topic of rugby.

But that's Kirwan the showman, the attention seeker, the man who's desperate to get a bit of publicity for his team. When he puts his rugby head on, he's a different man completely, although some of the theories he espouses are still far from straight-forward.

He has a tough job, there's little doubt about that. This afternoon's game against Ireland will mark his third Six Nations campaign in charge of the Azzurri. Each of the last two years he's won a game, Wales in 2003, Scotland last year, and while there have been signs of progress, everything he was attempting to achieve took a little shuffle backwards when Diego Dominguez retired from the international scene.

This season, he has Luciano Orquera at out-half, a native of Argentina who's believed to be infinitely better than the two previous inept incumbents, Ramiro Pez and Rima Wakarua. That should act as something of a balm for Kirwan, but the problems as he sees them are temperament rather than talent related.

"There's a word in Italian called capirewhich means to understand and I think the players are starting to understand, " he says. "I'm trying to get across to them that they come from the land of Ferrari but we need to drive a Jaguar.

We're Latins but we play in an Anglo-Saxon competition where there are lots of ups and downs.

"Whether we like it or not, we can't have mental lapses in games, they just can't happen. All my players can do when they get hammered by teams is to understand that if they are off their game, they will get hammered. From there they need to make sure they never switch off in games again because they know what will happen to them. It's important they realise a lot of this competition is a mental thing and we've got to change that attitude."

In a way, Kirwan sees Treviso's perceived progress in the Heineken Cup this year as something truly Italian, a mirror image of what continually happens to his team on the international scene. "They played outstandingly at times and then went out the last day against Leinster and got thrashed, " he says. "The important thing in our growth is concentrating on those positive moments and to be fair there were a lot of them for Treviso this season.

But it's not very easy approaching Ireland as your first game when you just got hammered by an Irish side."

For Eddie O'Sullivan's side, Kirwan has nothing but the utmost respect for the way in which they've progressed over the past few seasons.

"They're getting better and better. They've got a well balanced side and they're going to be one of the teams to beat.

I also think their ambitions have changed too. They've come from a situation where they've had a few rough years, they've started playing well and Eddie's taken them to a new level. They'll be hoping to win it so that's a completely changed attitude. They have the complete line-out, a competitive scrum, the best midfield combination in the world so you've got to respect them."

Today's game will be live on Italian television, a rarer occurrence than you might imagine. It's a chance for Kirwan's side to attract the attention of a football obsessed home audience and a victory against Ireland, in their current state, would certainly mean a lot more than any of the three previous victories they've posted in the competition to date. Even a close game could do the trick.

As for Santa Claus coming to town, Kirwan believes his side must dream like children at Christmas. "We might be looking for a remote control car and only get a pushone, " he says, "but then again we might ask for a BMX and get a motorbike."

Just so long as they don't get a lump of coal this afternoon, you get the sense Kirwan will be happy.