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Italy experiment versus Ireland

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Youthful Italy side boasts promise in RWC warm-up

Italy are set to kick-off their Rugby World Cup preparations in Dublin on Saturday, with the Azzurri taking on Ireland at the Aviva Stadium.

Conor O’Shea has named his squad for the test and has opted to include a number of younger players in the starting XV, with the game clearly seen as an opportunity for those newer faces to impress against an Irish side that has a number of regular starters involved.

Italy’s remaining warm-up games will see them host Russia the following week, before finishing up with trips to Paris and Newcastle to take on France and England respectively.

The experience of Carlo Canna, Tommaso Benvenuti and Guglielmo Palazzani has been retained in the back line, alongside established options such as Angelo Esposito and Edoardo Padovani. The inclusion of 21-year-old Benetton centre Marco Zanon, however, offers Italian fans a new look midfield partnership with Benvenuti.

Zanon, who had a strong Guinness PRO14 campaign last season, is set to win just his second cap for Italy, with the first coming against France earlier this year in the Guinness Six Nations. A powerful and incisive ball-carrier, O’Shea will be hoping that Zanon can expose Ireland’s midfield pairing of Chris Farrell and Garry Ringrose.

There is a similar theme up front in the forwards, with tighthead prop Marco Riccioni in line to make his debut in the starting XV, as Benetton continue to pump out impressive young Italian players ready for international rugby. He will be joined in the pack by Giovanni Licata, with the Zebre back rower continuing to make a reputation for himself after impressing at age-grade levels previously.

Experience in the pack comes in the forms of second rows Dean Budd and Alessandro Zanni, whilst props Simone Ferrari and Andrea Lovotti wait in the wings on the bench.

Riccioni’s opposite number in Dublin will be British and Irish Lion Jack McGrath, whilst Licata will need to bring success on the gain-line as both a carrier and a tackler to help mitigate the likes of Rhys Ruddock and Jordi Murphy in the Irish back row.

The trio of Zanon, Riccioni and Licata all played together for the Italian U20 side in 2017, with their impressive transition to the senior club and international game over the last year an indication of the positive work that O’Shea has been doing with the Azzurri. Riccioni captained that U20 side and all three have made sizeable strides in their development over the past two years.

Expectations around Italy at the Rugby World Cup will be realistic and few are expecting them to escape from a pool that boasts both New Zealand and South Africa, but if this impressive young triad can force their way into O’Shea’s 31-man squad and pick up valuable experience in Japan, then Italy could be on a path to being more of a force in the next cycle.

Watch: Rugby Explorer – Italy

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Youthful Italy side boasts promise in RWC warm-up