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Defence coach Antony Foley paid a warm tribute to Brian O'Driscoll on Friday as speculation continued that Ireland's captain is about to end his impressive career.
Italy host Ireland for the sides' final Six Nations game on Saturday at Rome's Olympic stadium where the Azzurri's own icon, prop Andrea Lo Cicero, will make his record 103rd and final appearance.
Ireland were considered potential winners of the tournament earlier this year but after beating Wales in Cardiff, Declan Kidney's men endured an injury-hit campaign which led to back-to-back narrow defeats to England and Scotland.
A 13-13 draw with France last week has left Ireland just one point above fifth-placed Italy. If the Azzurri win and France beat Scotland, Ireland could pick up the wooden spoon for the first time in the Six Nations, although that would take a 24-point swing between them and France.
For the Irish, and indeed rugby fans in general, it would be an ill-fitting end to O'Driscoll's glittering career, in which he was voted player of the tournament in 2006, 2007 and 2009 and is widely regarded as one of the world's best ever centres.
While doubt remains over his future, defence coach Foley -- a former Ireland international -- paid his own tribute to the 34-year-old Leinster three-quarter.
"Having seen Brian at the age he started his career and the prodigious talent he was at that stage, to the legend that he is now, it's something I've been fortunate to see. He's an excellent teammate and an excellent man to coach," Foley told reporters here Friday.
"He's as hard as nails, he's a privilege to have in your squad and I don't think you ever take it for granted when you have guys like that in your squad.
"You cherish them while you have them because you'll be a long time missing them."
Ireland are without a number of key regulars including fly-half Jonathan Sexton who, after missing games against England, Scotland and France, pulled up on Thursday with a fresh, ligament injury in his foot.
But despite the hype expected at the Olympic Stadium for the final match of the tournament, and with the added emotion of Lo Cicero's farewell, Ireland claim they are fully focused.
"They're playing at home, they've targeted this game, it's going to be emotional," added Foley.
"But when you cut through all the wrapping it does just become about 15 men and we hope we're better prepared than they are."
Prop Ciaran Healy believes the support from Ireland's travelling fans, and those who already live in the Eternal City, will give the Irish an extra spur.
"There's a lot of Irish over here as well and it's a big weekend with a lot of positivity around it, so we're really looking forward to it," said Healy.
"It will be a tough game, it always is. We've trained pretty well and we've put a lot of things together the whole tournament.
"We'll be going at it with the right attitude and we'll be looking to attack them."
Italy's tournament began with a deserved 23-18 win over France but was followed by heavy defeats to Scotland and Wales before Jacques Brunel's side regrouped at Twickenham to give England a scare in an 18-11 defeat last week.
Foley said Ireland do not underestimate Italy but stressed the need to bring an end to their three-game try drought once the emotion of the build-up fades at kick-off.
"At the moment we're in a mindset that we're in a game tomorrow and we need to win it," Foley said.
"We're not really worried about all the guys who are missing.
"We're confident that what we're doing is right and if we continue along this vein we will get the results we deserve."