Home ground: Stadio Olimpico, Rome
Head Coach: Jacques Brunel
Italy’s form has proven rather difficult to predict of late. Performances ranging from inspired to insipid make it tough to cast predictions, with England now the only team not to be caught cold by a surprise Italian assault.
Any major challenge this year will as ever be built on their strong set piece game, giving Martin Castrogiovanni and co. every opportunity to get after their opposite numbers at scrum time. If they can consistently produce the collective will and cohesion of a Roman testudo they will be a match for anyone.
The set-piece, allied with an outstanding back-row starring the gladiatorial Sergio Parisse and the somewhat overlooked but no less impressive Alessandro Zanni, ought to allow Italy to keep most games close. They are amongst the best in the world at disrupting the flow of their opposition’s game, going from set-piece to set-piece, forcing errors, stifling the opposition’s rhythm. The key to turning competitive performances into multiple victories will be whether they can find a tempo of their own.
Italy’s ability to disrupt their opponents comes as both a blessing and a curse. Whilst they can pressurise and suffocate, the fragmented games this often creates means they are unable to shift gears themselves and find the fluidity to inflict maximum damage. Their lack of genuine attacking weapons in the backline remains a worry, compounded by the loss of Gonzalo Canale’s considerable experience to injury. Eduardo Gori too often fails to inject the necessary tempo into their game leaving an already underpowered backline looking even less potent.
Who wears the 10 shirt could also be crucial. Much has been made of young Italian-born, English-raised, Scottish youth international Tommaso Allan’s potential as the heir to the great Diego Dominguez’s throne.
However, his lack of top level game time means this year’s tournament perhaps comes too soon for him. The incumbent Luciano Orquera has shown flashes of being able to unpick defences, attacking much flatter to the gainline and finding gaps and offloads. Orquera and his three-quarters will need to continue this trend if Italy are to cross the Tiber; moving from perennial basement dwellers to genuine contenders.
Player to Watch: Tommaso Allan
Whilst unlikely to start, the globetrotting 20-year old fly-half could still have an impact on Italy’s fortunes in this tournament from the bench. Having most recently plied his trade with Western Province in the U19 Currie Cup, he brings natural footballing ability, the exuberance of youth and a willingness to express himself on the field. His initial performances for Perpignan this season, whilst a little scarce, have been encouraging, with both his composure and feel for the game immediately catching the eye.
The big stage clearly doesn’t seem to faze him either as he scored 11 points for Perpignan on his senior rugby debut against a Racing Metro side conducted by Ireland and Lions number 10 Johnny Sexton. If Italy are in need of a little razzle-dazzle – and judging by the evidence of recent years they may well be – this young man can provide it. Certainly one for the future, Italy will be hoping Allan is ready to make an impact right now.
Last Season: 4th
A strong effort the last year’s Six Nations saw Italy pick up two excellent wins against an injury ravaged Ireland and a rudderless France, handicapped as any team would be by having Freddie Michalak giving his all to challenge Mauro Bergamasco’s scrum-half fiasco for the title of worst individual performance of the professional era. These impressive results along with a strong showing at Twickenham meant there was cause for optimism about Italy’s potential progression under Jacques Brunel.
Since then however, Italy have failed to kick on from a promising campaign, recording only one win in the rest of the calendar year – a bizarre card-fest against Fiji in the Autumn series. That keyword, consistency, continued to elude them throughout 2013 and remains the missing ingredient Brunel will no doubt be desperate to locate in 2014.
Achieving said consistency is likely to be easier said than done however. An unkind schedule does not see the Italians at home until round three, by which time all momentum could well be lost. With only two home games against Scotland and England, things don’t look all that promising for the Azzurri.
Whether they avoid the wooden spoon or not will depend on whether they can beat the Scots at the Stadio Olimpico, and although they seem to have one big performance in them every year, injuries and a poor autumn means they may fail to do even that. They will likely struggle on the road against what look to be strong Irish and Welsh sides, whilst France, who traditionally prosper in tournaments after Lions tours, will also be eager to banish the demons of last year’s upset. Altogether, it could be a rough ride for the Italians this season.
By Patrick Cheshire (@jpcheshire)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images