Franco Smith’s side have tasted defeat against Wales and France so far this year, whilst their only wins in 2019 came against Tier 2 teams Canada, Namibia and Russia. In 2018, they beat Georgia and split their two-match series with Japan, but you have to go all the way back to 2016 for their last win against a Tier 1 nation, when they beat South Africa, 20-18, in Florence.
It’s back to 2015 for their last Six Nations win, when they beat Scotland at Murrayfield, and though there has been the odd tight and competitive loss since then in the competition, that has done little to boost waning Italian spirits. Italy have consistently shown themselves to be more than a match for the teams looking to take their spot in the Six Nations, but their fortunes against the other five incumbents has been disappointing.
Conor O’Shea’s tenure will be remembered both positively and negatively, with the poor return at the senior men’s level impossible to ignore, although the win over South Africa was the first in the nation’s history and the improved fortunes, both on the pitch and in terms of producing top-tier players for Italy’s two club sides, of the Italian age-grade pathway is also part of his legacy in the country.
Italy, who host the World Rugby U20 Championship this year, have retained their spot in the top echelons of international age-grade rugby for the last four years now, whilst the likes of Japan, Samoa and Scotland have taken on the mantle of being relegated to the World Rugby U20 Trophy. In that time, the Italian U20s have been busy producing players of a calibre that they simply weren’t in the years prior to that.
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Whilst this is encouraging for Italian rugby and its passionate supporters, it also puts pressure on Smith as the new head coach. There’s a talented player base available to him that not all of his predecessors have been lucky enough to be able to tap into.
In 2016, the age-grade side featured Matteo Minozzi, Marco Zanon, Giovanni Licata, Marco Riccioni and Giosue Zilocchi, who have since amassed a combined 42 senior international caps at time of writing. A year later and Danilo Fischetti and Niccolo Cannone, both since capped, were emerging from the pathway, alongside current senior squad member Antonio Rizzi at fly-half.
There is a young core of talent there that, if it can be developed, is capable of being much more competitive within the Six Nations than we have seen Italy able to do in recent years. No one is predicting a significant enough surge in Italy’s fortunes to put them in contention for the title, but at U20 level at least, they are showing they are a match for most of their local rivals. Those players are now finding themselves transitioned into professional sides where they can develop and win.
Combined with a number of effective performers who are either soon entering their prime, such as Federico Ruzza and Jake Polledri, as well as players currently in their primes, such as Luca Bigi and Braam Steyn, the Italian squad is not as far off as some people seem to think it is.
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Both Zebre and Benetton have shown themselves to be capable of performing at a higher level within the PRO14 of late and the uptick in productivity of the Italian U20 side has seen both clubs fill out their squads with more and better-quality depth. The union isn’t at the point of having a surplus of talent for two teams and requiring a third just yet, though the trajectory is positive.
The 2020 Six Nations is a tough audition for Smith, who has been appointed on an interim basis. There is inevitably a desire to build more around that potential young core, although he needs to show his ability to put together a competitive side if he wants to stay in the role moving towards the 2023 Rugby World Cup in France.
From a fearsome but ageing pack to the standout backs that the country has produced over the past 15 or so years, and not forgetting the talismanic influence of Sergio Parisse, Italy have had the component parts in place before, but they have never seemed to quite align at the right time for the side to push on to higher levels.
It may be a young group, but there is a balance to Italy’s senior playing pool that is beginning to show itself, even if there is not currently an apparent Parisse, Martin Castrogiovanni or Andrea Masi to call upon from their ranks.
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Up front, Fischetti, Riccioni and Zilocchi are still learning their trade and yet showing considerable ability, whilst Cannone and Ruzza could be one of the premier second row combinations in Italian rugby history in the coming years, ably assisted by Thomas Parolo. Steyn and Polledri bring class in the back row and are doing a very successful job of filling the Parisse void, with Licata also maturing into a valuable player.
Rizzi could be the long-awaited successor to Diego Dominguez, though that’s a burden you want to put on no one’s shoulders. The 25-year-old Callum Braley is being given the opportunity to prove he can cut at this level, too, with Charley Trussardi also on the radar. There is no doubt Smith would like more competition there, but there are young decision-makers to also build around in the half-backs.
Versatile back three star Minozzi is the spearhead of the back line in attack, where he is joined by Zanon and Mattia Bellini. All three have a point of difference at club level and are beginning to show that they can replicate that in the international arena. If the likes of Matteo Moscardi and Giovanni D’Onofrio can join them in the coming seasons, Italy have options and exciting ones at that.
Whether or not Smith is the man tasked with taking this group forward remains to be seen, but this is an opportune time to be getting in at the ground floor with Italian rugby. Titles will still allude the Azzurri, as they do Scotland, Argentina and other nations with limited player pools and a small number of professional teams, though the jump to being competitive, something which will be celebrated in Italy like title wins, is within reach.
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