Ireland captain Paul O’Connell backs rookie Jordi Murphy to handle the pressure

Ireland skipper Paul O'Connell talks to his team during Friday's captain's run at the Stadio Olimpio
Ireland skipper Paul O'Connell talks to his team during Friday's captain's run at the Stadio Olimpio

Ireland captain Paul O’Connell believes rookie number eight Jordi Murphy must “play his own game” on Saturday rather than worry about his “superstar” opposite number, Italy’s Sergio Parisse.

O’Connell admits it will be “strange” to open the RBS 6 Nations against the Azzurri in Rome without his right-hand man Jamie Heaslip.

Vice-captain and near-ever-present number eight Heaslip will miss just his second Six Nations match in Ireland’s last 36, after failing to beat shoulder trouble in time for the Stadio Olimpico clash.

Talisman Parisse so often provides Italy’s rhythm, guile and finesse, but lacks nothing in guts either.

O’Connell hailed the 31-year-old as “one of the best in the world”, but expects four-cap Murphy to handle the tussle.

“It is strange. You definitely lose a relaxed leadership around the place. He always has plenty to say and a good way of saying it,” O’Connell said of Heaslip’s rare absence.

“And there’s no doubt he’d be a handy guy to have, especially with a few inexperienced guys in the team, but that’s part and parcel of it.

“You just have to get on with it.

“We’ve had to play without some experienced guys in big games in recent years and you’ve just got to get on with it.

“But there’s no doubt that through his leadership and the fact he tends to be very relaxed in the build-up to these big games, that he’s a good influence around the place.

“But, as I say, we’ve just got to get on with it.

“Having watched Jordi in the last few months, his own game is excellent.

“He’s incredibly fit, incredibly powerful, an excellent ball-carrier, a very clever player as well.

“There’s no doubt Parisse’s a superstar, a fantastic player, but I don’t think you come directly up against your opposite number all that much.

“The big thing for Jordi is to play his own game.”

Heaslip will be ready to face France in Dublin on February 14 in the second round of Six Nations action, as will Johnny Sexton.

Ireland bosses confirmed the British and Irish Lions fly-half has been passed fit after his enforced 12-week lay-off following four concussions in 12 months.

Just as Murphy stands in for Heaslip then, so too does Munster fly-half Ian Keatley deputise for Sexton.

O’Connell sees elements of Heaslip’s laconic approach in 23-year-old Leinster flanker Murphy, who will make his Six Nations debut in Rome.

Munster’s totemic lock believes new boy Murphy will need all that calmness when faced with 108-cap Italy titan Parisse.

“I suppose Jordi’s a little bit similar to Jamie in many ways,” O’Connell said. “He’s a very relaxed guy, obviously very talented, and very powerful.

“One of the things with Joe is that everyone knows their own role at the weekend.

“Since day one he’s known his lineout role inside-out. He’s very well prepared and that’s all you can be.

“Since we came into camp in Christmas, we’ve only focused on Italy. It’s been fairly pointed that we haven’t looked beyond that.

“The more you look at Italy, the more you see of how Sergio Parisse plays.

“There’s a kind of relentless intensity. He’s doing loads of little things, but as well as that he’s making loads of big plays.

“Some players can perform a big play and you don’t see them again for 10 minutes. Parisse backs them up for 80-plus minutes.”