First in our set of previews ahead of the Six Nations we examine the prospects of last year’s sixth placed finishers, Conor O’Shea’s Italy.
Measuring the success and progress of Italian rugby seems as challenging as coaching them at times with the Azzurri set to prop up the table once again.
Nevertheless, head coach O’Shea continues to portray a man filled with hope and promise as he looks to transform the culture, and ultimately the fortunes, of Italian rugby. His win record leaves much to be desired, however, although a memorable victory over South Africa in 2016 remains a highlight of his tenure.
Expectations are for another tough and challenging campaign but, provided O’Shea continues to see progress and find positives in their performances, he will remain a man committed to the cause. Aided this year by Mike Catt once again and the help of Wayne Smith.
Last year: O’Shea endured a winless debut campaign in charge of Italian rugby, but it wasn’t without pockets of positivity and innovation.
Comprehensively beaten in Rome by Wales on the opening weekend 33-7, but the scoreline doesn’t tell the whole story. Wales came strong towards the end with 21 points coming in the final 20 minutes.
A mauling the week after though by Ireland in the Italian capital broadcasted the gulf in class with both CJ Stander and Craig Gilroy grabbing hat-tricks; the latter becoming the first replacement ever to do so.
Round three saw Italy visit Twickenham and deploy tactics that had the world talking. Tactics that in turn produced a spirited performance. The Italians chose not to compete at the breakdown: no ruck means no offside line and England’s players were left bamboozled. It even brought the fire out of Eddie Jones post match. Nevertheless, England emerged 36-15 victors, owing much to 19 points in the final 11 minutes.
France were the final team to visit Rome and left with a relatively routine 40-18 bonus-point victory and the Championship ended for Italy on a dull note after Scotland kept them scoreless at Murrayfield.
This year: 2017 finished with defeats to both South Africa and Argentina but, before that, there was a victory to savour over Fiji. Wins have been hard to come by for Italy full stop in recent years, not just under O’Shea.
He remains an optimist, however, and three out of five games being away from home won’t faze the Irish coach. Despite that, there is no doubting how desperate he and the whole of Italian rugby are to end their winless drought that dates all the way back to February 2015 when they beat Scotland.
Hosting the Scots in Rome would usually be seen as a very winnable game for the Italians but, with the Celts’ current upward trajectory, it now renders a contest with Scotland as an unlikely win. It is certainly clear that any win recorded by Italy, as remote as that may seem, will be well deserved.
Key player: The talismanic Sergio Parisse continues to lead Italy in every way a traditional number eight doesn’t. Given his repertoire of skills Parisse is often found in places a back-rower should never be seen, but that’s a mark of his skill set. Able under the high ball and often taking the ball as first receiver, Italy will continue to look towards the Stade Français man for inspiration.
Players to watch: Young Zebre fly-half Carlo Canna has been impressing with his performances in the PRO14, even helping his side to a memorable victory over Ulster earlier in the year. He played in last year’s Championship which will only stand him in good stead this time round.
Outside him in the centres, Tommaso Castello is another young name looking to make a difference. His quick feet and burst of pace is a weapon Italy will look to deploy and getting him quick front-foot ball will be the task of Canna inside him.
Prospects: Anything other than five losses from five games will be a sizeable achievement for this Italian outfit. O’Shea has spoken about his want to change the culture, feeling and perception of rugby in Italy and the best way to ultimately do that is to win.
Three away fixtures at Wales, Ireland and France make that challenging but in sport anything can happen. England on the opening weekend should provide us with a useful guide as to where Italy are in 2018 with the opposition only likely to get easier.
The most likely opportunity for a win this campaign may come in the final round with Scotland, possibly having nothing to play for, taking their foot off the gas somewhat, but even that seems unlikely.
Sunday, February 4 v England (Stadio Olympico)
Saturday, February 10 v Ireland (Aviva Stadium)
Friday, February 23 v France (Stade Velodrome)
Sunday, March 11 v Wales (Principality Stadium)
Saturday, March 17 v Scotland (Stadio Olympico)