RBS 6 Nations 2011 Team Preview: Italy

As we continue the build up to the 2011 RBS Six Nations, Ben Coles assesses the Italian side and their prospects for this year’s championship.

Six Nations Pedigree: ItalyThe statistics do not read well when examining Italy’s Six Nations record, but there have over the years been some great victories. The predictions that it would take Italy ten years to establish themselves as a rugby force were a tad optimistic, but with their inclusion into the Magners League you sense that now is the time where Italian rugby will really start to come through. But for now the facts do not read well. Just 7 victories in 55 Six Nations games, and a rather ominous points difference of -1003.

Best Six Nations moment:
Italy’s best finish in the Six Nations came in 2007, when they achieved back to back victories for the first time against Scotland away at Murrayfield, and then against Wales the week after back in Rome. Here Italy trail by 4 points with 5 minutes to go…

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Biggest Six Nations win: 37 – 17 (v Scotland 2007)

Biggest Six Nations defeat: 23 – 80 (v England 1997)

Current Form: L-L-L-L-L-W
With only two victories out of ten during 2010, against Scotland and Fiji, their record does not read very well. There were some strong performances against South Africa and Argentina, as well as the close game at home against England where they only lost by 5 points. However, the results are what count, and Italy’s record in this competition will not exactly inspire confidence.

Key player: Sergio Parisse
Who else? Italy’s greatest player since Diego Dominguez, Parisse’s absence from last year’s tournament was a blow not just for Italy but for the whole tournament as a spectacle. His flair and persistent breaking of the game line have established his reputation as one of the best number eights in world rugby. Also remarkably, he is only 27, but it feels as though he has been around for a lot longer. His return will be an immeasurable boost for the Azzurri.

One to watch: Kristopher Burton
Losing Craig Gower to a long term knee injury has been a big blow to Nick Mallett’s preparations, and so in comes 24 year old Kristopher Burton of Treviso. The Australian born fly-half has been in good form for his club side in the Magners League, with his goal-kicking arguably being his outstanding quality. In an area where Italy have struggled ever since the retirements of Alessandro Troncon and Diego Dominguez, the search goes on for a long term replacement. Burton could be the man.

RBS Six Nations Fixtures:
Saturday 5th February, Italy v Ireland, 14:30, Stadio Flaminio
Saturday 12th February, England v Italy, 14:30, Twickenham
Saturday 26th February, Italy v Wales, 15:00, Stadio Flaminio
Saturday 12th March, Italy v France, 14:30, Stadio Flaminio
Saturday 19th March, Scotland v Italy, 14:30, Murrayfield

Key clash: Italy v Wales
Perhaps the only game realistically where Italy can pick up a victory. Wales look seriously undercooked going into this year’s competition, soft upfront with the absence of crucial front rowers and lacking belief. They have a good history in matches against Wales in this competition, and home advantage could prove to be the decisive factor.

Odds: 6th favorites at 250/1 with Paddy Power.

Argument that says they can win it:
In reality perhaps there isn’t one. Italy do have the advantage of playing three games at home in this year’s tournament, and the Wales game as previously mentioned could bring a victory. Their scrum and lineout are both very strong areas of their game. If all the other sides lose key/all of their players or are prevented from playing the games due to travel problems or severe illness, then Italy have a great chance.

Argument that says they can’t:
They lack experience and imagination in the crucial half-back positions. Having a great set-piece is fine but if you’re backs are unable to make the most of the possession then it may as well be pointless. Italian rugby needs another ten years of competition, both internationally in the Six Nations and domestically through the Magners League and Heineken Cup, before they can realistically be considered as title contenders. Their spirit and determination though, has never been in doubt.

Coach says:
Nick Mallett: “Our aims and objectives are the same as every year, but we’re not arrogant about what we can achieve. There is no easy game in this competition, and England and Scotland have both improved significantly. What we do know is that Italian rugby without our participation in the Six Nations would be lost.

Captain says:
Leonardo Ghilardini: “The entry into the Magners League has been hugely important for both Treviso and Aironi. It has given us as players some great exposure to a new level of domestic rugby and over time we have no doubt that the benefit of this will be clear on the pitch. For me, this is a big year for Italian rugby, and we are looking forward to starting and starting well.”

Prediction:
Unfortunately it may be another wooden spoon against for the Azzurri. 6th.

Extras:
Highlights of Italy’s record win against Scotland in 2007:

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