Six Nations Preview: Italy

Six_Nations_Championship.svgIN THE WEEKS leading up to the Six Nations, the analysis of rugby commentators and former players fill the national papers. Injuries, form, team selection, tactical developments and home advantages are a small fraction of the aspects that seem to be on everyone’s mind these days. For that reason, I find it bizarre that so many fail to fully consider one of the six contenders. If you go online, there are hundreds of articles on everything from Lancaster’s selection dilemma to the increasing contingents of southern hemisphere importsm yet there is barely any analysis on Italy. It may be that they are the betting companies’ favourites for the Wooden Spoon every year. Since the Five Nations turned into Six Nations when Italy joined in 2000, the Azzuri have claimed the Wooden Spoon ten times. Surely not an achievement to be proud of. However, they prove to be a handful too much every now and then. Their squad includes some influential and interesting characters that can change any game. Their forwards, in particular, represent one of the most ferocious and experienced packs in the northern hemisphere.

The 2015 RBS Six Nations marks the fourth and final championship for Jacques Brunel who is set to step down after the World Cup later this year. Brunel’s reign will always be remembered for the two famous wins in 2013 over France and Ireland at home in Rome. At home they have repeatedly showed that they can beat anyone on a good day. Italy will be opening the 2015 tournament with a home match against Ireland, before ending it by welcoming France and Wales to Rome. In between these fixtures, they are facing two tricky away games to England and Scotland.

They go into the next few months with a promising form in the Autumn Internationals. Currently ranked 14th in the world, Brunel’s side need to create a platform of consistent performances and solid defensive organisation if they are to have any success in Six Nations and the World Cup. 2014 was a miserable year for the Azzuri, besides the encouraging autumn series in which the win over Samoa broke a streak of nine consecutive defeats. Something crucial has been clearly been missing in their game ever since that memorable campaign two years ago.

With the World Cup only six eight months away, this is the right time to be looking for new pairings and fresh talent. Italy is not likely to be fighting for a top 3 spot in this year’s championship, so in that regard it will be more important to ensure that the charismatic skipper and talisman, Sergio Parisse, and his team-mates go into the World Cup in the best possible shape and structure. Brunel has for that reason opted for a few new faces. Italy will struggle with a number of injuries to experienced players, with lock Quintin Geldenhuys and centres Gonzalo Garcia, Gonzalo Canale and Alberto Sgarbi all missing.

The French coach has therefore named four uncapped backs in his squad. Calvisano’s scrum half Marcello Violi, Treviso’s Simone Ragusi and Zebre’s winger Michele Visentin and centre Giulio Bisegni have all been brought in for this year’s Six Nations. The latter, in particular, is a promising talent with two tries in eight games in the PRO12 this season. At No. 10, Luciano Orquera has rather surprisingly been left out of the 30-man squad for the two first games against Ireland and England. Tommaso Allan, the fifth highest point scorer in last year’s championship, and New Zealand-born Kelly Haimona have been given the nod instead.

That being said, there are tons of experience and quality in this team. The squad features six England-based players, of which the most noteworthy are the Leicester Tigers duo, Leonardo Ghiraldini and Robert Barbieri, and the Sale Sharks duo. Alberto de Marchi and Luke McLean. Moreover, Brunel has also decided to recall Giovanbattista Venditti and Mauro Bergamasco, two highly experienced and influential players. Still, I do not think they have what it takes to overturn Scotland. Another Wooden Spoon is awaiting Brunel and his side in late-March. Nevertheless, I would not be surprised if they pulled off a surprising win at home to one of the big guns. Anything can happen in Italy.

Young player to look out for: Giulio Bisegni

Star player: Sergio Parisse (cpt)

Most tries Six Nations 2015: Andrea Masi