Italy coach Franco Smith has one task over the next seven weeks. To drive his men in chasing hard to end their losing Italy Six Nations run in the tournament that stretches back to 2015!
The Azzurri’s last victory came when they prevailed 22-19 away to Scotland at Murrayfield, but since then the closest they have come to stopping the run came against France in 2016 and Scotland in 2018 when they lost by two points.
It is a run of 22 matches in which Italy has claimed two losing bonus points, and their quest to end that run begins against France on home soil.
Despite the pressure, Smith has chosen a squad with one eye on the future and an average age below 24. Players such as Paolo Garbisi, 20, and Stephen Varney, 19, have already tasted international rugby having featured in the Autumn Nations Cup, and it is their fearlessness that Smith is backing to ensure that Italy not only secure that elusive win but remain competitive ‘beyond the end of the tournament’ in March.
Chasing hard end the losing Italy Six Nations run
“There’s the need to show courage and set an example,” Smith said. “This is a team that is in development and our best young players need experience on the pitch. This is how we achieve our aims.
“I didn’t come back to Italy for the sake of it or just to take part, I want to build a team that can enjoy successful results in the short term and long term. There’s a big expectation around winning the first game but, we don’t want to win just one.
“We want to win consistently. We don’t want to have a one-off where we play well. This is a new start for Italian rugby.”
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Italy is led by hooker Luca Bigi for the second season, who at the ripe old age of 29 is one of the wise old heads among the squad which features first call-ups for props Daniele Rimpelli and Marco Manfredi, second-row Riccardo Favretto, and centre Juan Ignacio Brex.
The Autumn Nations Cup didn’t offer any respite. After starting with a defeat to France in Paris, they were then given a walkover win over a Covid-ravaged Fiji but finished with defeats to Scotland and Wales.
Tough task with star players missing
Smith is without the twinkle-toed Matteo Minozzi who has opted to stay with his English club Wasps, while another of his leading performers; number eight Jake Polledri, suffered a knee injury in that defeat to Scotland and has yet to return for his club Gloucester.
Paolo Ricci Bitti has been covering Italy’ fortunes for national daily Il Messaggero since 1979, and it is with a heavy heart that he predicts Italy’s run will continue.
“Unfortunately, you have to be realistic and say we don’t really have much chance of winning a match, certainly not against England or France who are in good form,” he told Last Word on Rugby. “There may be a chance against Wales depending on how their confidence is and how we play.
“Smith has done well, but it is like he is building a cathedral which takes a long time. It is an incredibly young team, and they lack experience. Garbisi and Varney have beaten Scotland and Wales at U20 level, and I think we’re beginning to see something of the quality they can offer, though both players need guidance and the chance to build their experience.
“We’ll definitely miss Polledri. Our back row was one of our strongest parts of the team but now we have a gap at number 8. We are all waiting for him to come back.”
In fairness, Italy is in the best hands possible for what is proving to be a tricky period. Smith was due to be backs’ coach but stepped in as interim head coach when Conor O’ Shea returned to England following the Japan 2019 Rugby World Cup.
He knows Italian rugby well having played and coached leading side Benetton Treviso, alongside spells playing and coaching in his native South Africa.
— Guinness Six Nations (@SixNationsRugby) February 2, 2021
Ten years ago, the questions were about who Italy could call on to expand their style of play, and since then Edoardo Gori, Callum Braley, Carlo Canna, Tommaso Allen, and now Varney and Garbisi have come through to ensure they have half-backs who can pull the strings.
However, their rise coincided with the gradual erosion of Italy’s traditional point of strength – the pack. Props Martin Castrogiovanni, Andrea Lo Cicero, and Salvatore Perugini have not truly been replaced, nor has anyone played with the consistency of Marco Bortolami in the second row.
Self-belief key to Azzurri hopes
Then there is the big hole that Polledri was due to fill, that of former captain Sergio Parisse (who along with Castrogiovanni) gave the team so much thrust and dynamism.
Their line-breaking power and skill have been badly missed, and on too many occasions Italy’s attack has fallen down against aggressive defences. Worse still they are no longer the type of side whose pack could put South Africa’s on the backfoot, as they did in 2016.
Add in a lack of belief that has meant the Azzurri have twice failed to score during that run and it is clear that the sooner they win, the better. Paolo Ricci Bitti said, “Our biggest challenge is ourselves. We’ve got to be better at what we do every game,” Smith said. “We’ve seen in the Autumn Nations Cup, when we want that win too much, we make errors towards the end of the game.
“We start looking too much at what we want instead of what we need to do to get that. We must become a last 20-minute team. Against Scotland [in the Autumn Nations Cup] I felt we had control of it but the pressures of winning caught up to us in the end. We made mistakes we shouldn’t have.
“I want to win. We want this monkey off our backs. We’re really working hard to get it off.”
That aim begins immediately, as this year’s Italy Six Nations campaign begins against the highly favoured French side; but crucially, at home in Rome this weekend.
Guinness Six Nations: Round One – Italy v France
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