First in our set of previews ahead of the 2016 Six Nations, we examine the prospects of Jacques Brunel’s Italy.
Finding reasons to be optimistic about the Azzurri‘s prospects feels harder than ever as Italy prepare to wave goodbye to Brunel after four years of more head-scratching than happiness.
Brunel wanted Italy to become an expansive threat and we’ve only seen glimpses of that rather than a revolution.
New blood is always welcomed after a Rugby World Cup, but ten new caps? That’s just a gluttony of inexperience thrown into a competition where Italy struggle anyway. Finding reasons to be optimistic is a slog.
Last year: Were it not for a 79th minute penalty try to defeat Scotland then Italy would have finished rock bottom of the table, and in many ways it masked bigger issues. Overall in their four losses to Ireland, England, France and Wales, they were outscored 40-163.
It’s hard to decide which humbling was worse – being defeated 29-0 at home by France, or shipping 47 points in the second half against Wales in the first fixture on a crazy final day.
The development of Tommaso Allan along with Luca Morisi were at least a couple of positives to take forward, along with an dominant performance upfront at Murrayfield, but that’s just one game out of five. Considering that Italy didn’t finish with another Wooden Spoon, you’d think 2015 would be looked back more positively. If that’s the case then the standards are too low.
This year: Before the first ball has been kicked, Italy seem like the only side out of the six to have no chance whatsoever of winning the tournament. There’s nothing to suggest that 2016 is the year either for Italy to improve on their best ever finish of fourth.
Just two home games await against England and Scotland – the latter normally a good chance for a sole win, but not based on Scotland’s World Cup exploits and the good work being done by Vern Cotter.
No one, it should be stressed, is questioning Italy’s hunger. They will show the same passion and grit that we witness every year, and it wouldn’t be a shock to see them lead at half-time in one of their games to raise hopes of an upset.
Brunel has openly admitted though that his side’s weakness is their lack of consistency, both in-game and from game to game.
Sergio Parisse, Leo Ghilardini, currently injured, and Martin Castrogiovanni command respect based on their number of Test caps and how they have carried themselves in their careers. But at 32, 31 and 34 respectively, it’s time for new stars.
Blooding the ten new caps – Ornel Gega, Andrea Lovotti, Matthew Zanusso, Jacopo Sarto, Andries van Schalkwyk, Abraham Steyn, Edoardo Padovani, Mattia Bellini, Tommaso Castello and David Odiete – may unearth some gems given that all of the group aside from Van Schalkwyk range in age from 21 to 26.
None of the fixtures are easy, but back-to-back away games against Ireland and Wales to round off the tournament appear particularly punishing.
Key players: Parisse is the obvious pick given that he carries this team so often on his shoulders. They sorely missed him during a Rugby World Cup campaign in which he only played 65 minutes thanks to injuries.
Joshua Furno has been a bright spark in recent tournaments but misses out because of injury, which means that Zebre lock George Biagi could be set for a big campaign in Italy’s pack. The Scotland-born Zebre lock packs a real punch at 198cm and 117kg.
Edoardo Gori has a major role to play scrum-half in trying to get the best out of Italy’s raw backline, while Michele Campagnaro has shown flashes of his ability for Exeter Chiefs. Morisi will be missed.
Player to watch: The long-term solution to Italy’s problems at fly-half may just be Carlo Canna. Just 23, he made his debut last year in Italy’s Rugby World Cup warm-up match with Scotland, going on to be named in the 31-man squad. Canna in only in his first season of professional rugby with Zebre but what we’ve seen so far is promising.
Matteo Zanusso and Andrea Lovotti, the two new props, have plenty to live up to given Italy’s rich scrummagging heritage.
Prospects: One Wooden Spoon in four years under Jacques Brunel has taught us that writing Italy off compeltely doesn’t always work out that way. 2016 however feels like a bleaker affair. The squad has been given a much-needed injection of youth, but looks weakened by retirements and inexperience. Italy are set for a very long five weeks.
Saturday, February 6 v France (Stade de France)
Sunday, February 14 v England (Stadio Olimpico)
Saturday, February 27 v Scotland (Stadio Olimpico)
Saturday, March 12 v Ireland (Aviva Stadium)
Saturday, March 19 v Wales (Millennium Stadium)