Six Nations candidates: Italy

Can Italy avoid the wooden spoon in this year’s RBS Six Nations? Jonny McLeod looks at Italy’s prospects for their 2010 campaign.

Italy have always built on strong forward foundations. The brute strength and experience of their pack, which will include the likes of Mauro Bergamasco, Marco Bortolami, Martin Castrogiovanni and Carlo Del Fava, will again be their greatest assets.

They will be formidable in the set piece and physical at the breakdown. Their scrum destroyed New Zealand’s pack – albeit an inexperienced one – during the November international at the San Siro and, with Leicester tight-head prop Castrogiovanni set to be fit for the Championships, the Italians will try to make the most of their set-piece supremacy.

The absence of Sergio Parisse is a sledgehammer blow to Italy’s hopes of avoiding a third successive wooden spoon. The Stade Francais number eight will miss the entire tournament with a knee injury sustained during the November internationals. Not only a formidable player – the best number eight in the business – Parisse’s influence as a leader will be deeply missed.

Italy’s greatest Achilles heel remains their lack of electricity in the backline. Numerous half-backs have been auditioned over past few years – including flanker Bergamasco and centre Andrea Masi – but they continue to search for the right balance of control and creativity from their playmakers.

A place-kicker of consistency is another weakness that will need to be resolved. Mirco Bergamasco and Craig Gower were both used during the autumn internationals without great success. With try-scoring a rarity for the Italians, they will have to take their chances in front of goal if they are to convert possession into points.

Coach’s perspective: Nick Mallett
Took over Italy in 2007 having won two titles at Stade Francais and guided South Africa on a record 17-match winning run. The pressure is on the South African after just one victory in two Six Nations tournaments with Italy, yet he maintains: “The team has grown in the last six months.”

Key player: Mauro Bergamasco
The Stade Francias flanker will be vital in the absence of Sergio Parisse. Bergamasco was drafted into the scrum-half role for last season’s encounter with England at Twickenham with disastrous effect, but restored to his regular position, Italy will be relying on his tough tackling and tireless work rate.

One to watch: Craig Gower
Nick Mallett could opt to persist with the former Australian rugby league captain at fly-half despite the return of Treviso number 10 Andrea Marcato from injury. The 31-year-old, who converted to union in 2007 joining French side Bayonne, is still getting to grips with the pace and tactical nuances of the international game. But if he retains the number 10 shirt, the pressure will be on to bring authority and direction to the Italian backline.

Stadium: Stadio Flaminio, Rome
Built in 1959 to host the 1960 Rome Olympics, it is the smallest stadium in the tournament but still has the potential to create a crackling atmosphere. Despite the successful experiment of playing New Zealand at the San Siro in Milan, the Stadio Flaminio remains Italy’s home.

Italy’s Six Nations Fixtures:
Sat 6 Feb v Ireland, Croke Park
Sun 14 Feb v England, Stadio Flaminio
Sat 27 Feb v Scotland, Stadio Flaminio
Sun 14 Mar v France, Stade de France
Sat 20 Mar v Wales, Millennium Stadium

Last season: 6th
Prediction: 6th