The fixture list does not do them any favours, but Italy have a genuine chance of moving up a level at this year’s Six Nations. In the past they have beaten Scotland fairly regularly, but for the big four Italy presented little more than a Roman holiday. That could be about to change.
In the Autumn internationals Italy were genuinely competitive against the All Blacks for 60 minutes and then played Australia off the park in the second half of the test match in Florence. They should have at least salvaged a draw from that game, having been much the superior side for the majority of the match.
Captain Sergio Parisse said, “Year by year the Italian team is improving and we are surely close to beating a big team. We did against France a couple of years ago and we put the pressure on Australia in November.”
The biggest challenge to Italy’s coaches in recent times has been to find a scrum-half and fly-half who could even compete at the top level. Jacques Brunel may at last be succeeding in what had seemed to be the impossible task.
Edoardo Gori is learning to make a nuisance of himself at scrum-half, although he still has a way to go before he can control a game like Alessandro Troncon used to. But fly-half Luciano Orquera really threatened the southern hemisphere sides with his distribution and attacking kicking. Conrad Smith, the man who organises the All Blacks outside defence, said that Italy had caused them more problems than any other side this year.
It was astonishing to see Italy shut out Australia for 40 minutes, a side they have yet to beat. Australia could scarcely find a way to relieve the pressure. Brunel had wanted to improve Italy’s kicking game above all else, and the message seems to be getting home. Italy are far more willing to shift the point of attack than in the past, and that is opening up the space to kick into.
It will be fascinating to see how they go in their opening match against France on February 3rd, having beaten them two years ago. France are the best team in the northern hemisphere, and should be too good, but if Italy can at least rattle them, it will set up their season.
It must drive the coach mad that the Azurri are the only team to have two six day turnarounds between matches in this year’s Six Nations. They play Scotland six days after meeting France, and then play Ireland in their final game six days after meeting England.
It offends natural justice. Italy have been given two short turnarounds after playing the two most physical teams in the competition. But that said, I suspect no one will relish playing them. They nearly beat Argentina in San Juan recently and their confidence is growing. They may regard England at Twickenham as the only match that they really don’t expect to win.
There is some genuine pace in the team, the pack will take on anyone, the kicking game is on the up and there is a physical presence in the outside backs that has been lacking in the past. With the exception of a South African in the second row, there is a Latin brotherhood about this team.
Italy won’t win the Grand Slam, but they have a genuine chance of a best ever finish.