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Six Nations 2017 Preview: The Only Way Is Up For Italy

By James Harrington
Italy's Michele Campagnaro

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Defence. Goal-kicking. Lack of depth. The problems facing Italy coach Conor O’Shea are legion, but he’s started in the right way, writes James Harrington.

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What to look out for
The only way has to be up. The 2016 campaign quickly turned rotten for the Azzurri after the early promise of their opening encounter against France in Paris – a match they lost 23-21 after France had dragged themselves back from 18-10 down with an hour gone, and Sergio Parisse, of all people, dragged a late, late drop-goal attempt wide of the mark.

Strengths
The coaching set-up. Conor O’Shea is young and smart and has created a backroom team in his image. He faces a Sisyphean task to turn Italy into the rugby force they are desperate to be, but he could be the man to do it.

Weaknesses
Defence. Kicking. Lack of depth. Take your pick. Hence the near-vertical challenge ahead of O’Shea. He has moved to shore up Italy’s defensive frailties – hiring Brendan Venter as defence coach was a stroke of genius. But the lack of a consistent goalkicker since the days of Diego Dominguez remains a huge problem. As does the absence of strength in depth. The other nations have player reserves to call on in case of injury – Italy don’t, as their increasingly dismal 2016 campaign proved.

The Man in Charge
O’Shea is definitely talking the talk ahead of his first Six Nations – though reports coming out of South Africa that Venter may be prepared to walk out on his newly signed two-and-a-half year deal as defence coach to join the Springboks will be an unwelcome distraction so close to the start of this year’s competition.

Player to Watch
Federico Ruzza. Even though everyone is talking about Exeter Chiefs’ midfield game-breaker Michele Campagnaro, the 22-year-old Zebre lock is the only uncapped player in a low-risk ‘continuity squad’ for coach O’Shea’s first Six Nations. The 6’6″, 17-stone forward, who is as comfortable at eight as he is in the boiler room, scored five tries in the Italian club’s generally back-pedalling Champions Cup campaign. Suggesting he could be the country’s long-term replacement for Sergio Parisse would put an unfair weight of expectation on the young man’s shoulders, but Italy need a future legend to hang their rugby dreams on as well as a current one.

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Big Match
It has to be either one of Italy’s opening two games – at home first to Wales and then Ireland. They will have to play out of their skins and hope to catch either team napping. After that the tournament will be well under way, coaches and players will have their gameplans firmly in place, and the opportunity for a shock win should be gone.

Prediction
Sixth. Truthfully, the best Italy can hope for is that they are more competitive and consistent than they were in 2016 – and end up with a points difference somewhat better than -145. Challenging for more has to wait a while longer.

Squad
Forwards: Pietro Ceccarelli, Dario Chistolini, Lorenzo Cittadini, Andrea Lovotti, Sami Panico, Tommaso D’Apice, Ornel Gega, Leonardo Ghiraldini, George Fabio Biagi, Joshua Furno, Marco Fuser, Federico Ruzza, Andries Van Schalkwyk, Marco Barbini, Simone Favaro, Maxime Mata Mbanda, Francesco Minto, Sergio Parisse (c), Abraham Jurgens Steyn
Backs: Giorgio Bronzini, Edoardo Gori, Marcello Violi, Tommaso Allan, Carlo Canna, Tommaso Benvenuti, Tommaso Boni, Michele Campagnaro, Luke McLean, Giulio Bisegni, Angelo Esposito, Giovambattista Venditti, Edoardo Padovan

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