When your coach is writing off your chances before the tournament has even begun, players and fans alike would be wise to temper their optimism with a little reality. This was definitely to the credit of Italian coach Jacques Brunel however, who is aiming to build a side which can perennially challenge for the Six Nations title rather than shock people with an upset here and there.
Whilst Italy only managed a solitary win against Scotland this year, Brunel will be pleased with what he saw from some of his players, but equally as important, he will have established which players do not have what it takes at this level and can bring in some fresh faces who he will hope can do a better job.
The win against Scotland in their last game of the tournament will have also been a fitting farewell to some of the Italian old guard such as Andrea Lo Cicero and Fabio Ongaro who may not feature again for the Azzurri.
This Six Nations will have highlighted two major issues for Brunel which he needs to address if he is serious about turning Italy into a contending nation. The first is ensuring his side can be as competitive in the second half as they are in the first. Italy were in contention for every game at the half time interval, but then against the French, Irish and Welsh let the match slip away with a sub-standard performance in the second half. Against both Scotland and England the Italians competed for the entire 80 minutes and walked away with a victory and narrow loss respectively. The narrow loss, against England, can almost solely be attributed to the lack of a reliable kicking option, which is the second issue Brunel needs to address, with Tobias Botes, Kris Burton and Mirco Bergamasco all proving ineffective.
There are some positives for the Frenchman though, specifically the performances of youngsters Simone Favaro and Giovanbattista Venditti, the later particularly given the lack of a fly half who could successfully distribute the ball to the Italian back line. Other players such as Alberto Sgarbi, Eduardo Gori and Tommaso D’Apice didn’t perform quite as well but were given invaluable international experience and could end up forming the core of Brunel’s squad in the coming years.
Italian talismans Sergio Parisse and Martin Castrogiovanni also did the Azzurri proud and Brunel will need to rely heavily on them to help a young Italian squad grow as a unit over the coming seasons. The emergence of the likes of Favaro and Venditti can almost certainly be attributed to the inclusion of Italian teams into the RaboDirect PRO12 and other exciting talents should also come through the system in the next couple of years.
A win against Scotland as well as a narrow loss to England can ultimately be seen as a successful season for the Azzurri, although perhaps not as sweet as their dramatic victory over France in last year’s tournament. Brunel has been able to hand invaluable experience to several younger players and at the same time fielded a team strong enough to never look truly out of their depth against the likes of Wales and France.
There are lots of positives for Brunel to take into next year’s tournament but they are unlikely to count for much if the Italians cannot find a reliable goal kicker and a fly half who can spark a back line which now boasts some exciting talents.
What did you make of Italy in this tournament? Can they really become viable contenders over the next few years?
By Alex Shaw