As the 2010 RBS Six Nations unfolds, everyone is talking about Grand Slams for France, Triple Crowns for Ireland and just how poor England have been recently. What’s not being so openly talked about is Italy’s victory over Scotland and how they almost claimed their first ever win over England in 16 attempts.
Whenever Italy are mentioned in the Six Nations context, it is quite often in a condescending manner and of how many points they are going to get beaten by. Is this fair though? Is it about time that we viewed the Italians as a growing force in world rugby rather than criticising the opposition for not putting 50 points on them?
The last two away trips for England to Rome have been treacherous: England won by 4 points in 2008 and 5 points this year. Yes England have played poorly but Italy have also played very well.
Many of their forwards are world class from the front row to the back. Martin Castrogiovanni is one of the best scrummagers in the world and would give any front row a difficult day – this was proved in the Autumn internationals when the mighty All Blacks struggled to build any sort of platform from the set piece due to a rocky scrum.
Behind them is what could possibly be one of the best back rows in the world and the cause of both England and Scotland’s problems in the Stadio Flaminio this year, and that’s without Sergio Parisse as well. In his place has come in Allesandro Zanni, who plays his club rugby for Treviso in Italy’s Super 10 competition. Against England Zanni was immense at the breakdown and his ball carrying caused England insurmountable problems. His performance deservedly earned him the Man of the Match accolade and with the help of Mauro Bergamasco and Kiwi born Josh Sole, Italy can make a mockery of any back row in the Six Nations.
This is exactly what happened to England and Scotland. They both let Italy control the ball up front and slow the game down and were forced to kick away slow ball, a ploy that stops Italy’s weaker back line being attacked. Zanni will have surely grabbed the attention of the big clubs in France this season and with no salary cap in the Top 14, a lucrative move could be on the cards for the Italian. A move such as this could only improve a player like Zanni and when Parisse is fit again it would be the obvious choice to move Zanni to blindside ensuring that this back row combination is as threatening as possible.
Italy’s historical problem has always been a lack of strength in depth behind the formidable front eight. An out and out goal kicker in the ten position has always been complemented by a solid passer of the ball at scrum half. Allesandro Troncon – Italy’s most capped player of all time – and Diego Dominguez – Italy’s all time highest points scorer are proof of that. This was a combination that was utilised for many years with a view that the forwards would earn penalties and Dominguez would kick them to keep Italy within touch during close matches.
Coach Nick Mallet is trying to buck this trend and has selected an inexperienced but exciting half-back partnership. Australian-born Rugby League convert Craig Gower is plying his trade with Bayonne in France and as an ex-league player he is more accustomed to keeping the ball in the hand. Tito Tebaldi at 22 years of age is the current incumbent of the number nine shirt and he is showing signs of promise, with good variation to his game, a swift pass and a quick turn of pace from the base of the scrum or breakdown giving his opponents something else to think about.
A comparison could easily be made to the Argentinean side of the 1990s. A strong pack was feared the world over with players Federico Mendez and Patricio Noriega disrupting front rows wherever they went. However, like Italy this team lacked flair and imagination in the backs and always seemed to come up just short. Moving into the new millennium however, players such as Agustin Pichot, the Contepomi brothers and the world class Juan Martin Hernandez have turned the Puma’s into a world class outfit that have beaten England at Twickenham, beaten hosts France and Ireland in the last world cup and ended up finishing third overall, beating France for the second time in the process.
Italy could well be on the cusp of creating a side like this and that is why the rugby world needs to start treating them with a bit more respect, because a win against a major rugby playing nation is not that far away.
Italy have kept the ball in hand a lot more n this year’s tournament and if they can find one or two players out wide that can make something from nothing, then this gladiatorial Italian side really could go from strength to strength in the coming years, and there’s no doubt that they’ll claim some major scalps along the way.
By Andrew Daniel