by Ben Lovell-Smith
Italy are the traditional whipping boys of the Six Nations tournament, their participation only necessary to ensure three fixtures per game-week. However, since their inauguration in the tournament in 2000, Italian rugby has advanced leaps and bounds.
With Connor O’shea having departed after the World Cup, Franco Smith has taken the mantle of head coach and Luca Bigi has replaced the legendary Sergio Parisse as captain. Could this mark the beginning of a new age of Italian rugby?
Out of the 19 tournaments that Italy have competed in, they have picked up the ‘wooden spoon’ in 14 of them, and have finished last every year since 2016, losing 22 games in a row.
Despite this, there has been significant progress within the Italian domestic game, with Benetton Treviso and Zebre. Last season Benetton finished third in Conference B of the Pro 14 behind Leinster and Ulster. This season they have performed impressively in their debut season in the Champions Cup, notably beating Lyon who are flying in the French Top 14.
There has been a slow increase of Italian internationals playing their domestic rugby within Italy. Previously key players would be found in Britain, France or Ireland. The success of Benetton Treviso, and vast improvement of Zebre in the Pro14 has a significant pull to retain key players such as Tommaso Allan, Tommaso Benvenuti and Braam Steyn. This should provide greater unity within the international squad going forward.
Italy have only ever won two matches away from home in the Six Nations. The fixture list has not been kind to Italy this year. They begin the tournament away to Wales and France and have just two home games this year for the Azzurri, one against England. Round three looks like a wooden spoon decider against Scotland in Rome.
Scotland had a rough start to their campaign with the Finn Russell saga, and Italy will be hoping this has a detrimental effect on their tournament. France find themselves at the beginning of a rebuilding phase and face England in the first round. It is conceivable that a French ‘cock’ up could give Italy a chance in Paris. You just don’t know with the French.
There is also reason to be excited about Italy. The team looks pretty dynamic. The back row is stacked with heavy carriers in Jake Polledri, Steyn and Sebastian Negri. Sergio Parisse is also available for home matches, and alongside the omnipresent Alessandro Zanni, there should be a nice blend of experience within the pack.
The back line has taken on an exciting look in recent years, Tommaso Allan has established himself as the starting fly half, whilst Matteo Minozzi has become one of the most vibrant full backs in Europe. Unleashing this talent is only really possible if the front five can step up and provide front foot ball. This is Italy’s weakest area, particularly by comparison with the other nations, they may well come unstuck here. Perhaps the influence of a bit of South African grit could do the trick.