Six Nations 2020 Preview: Italy

When thinking of Italy as a country or an entity if you will, the mind might likely conjure images of warm beaches, vineyards full of grapes and great food. For most of us these images are likely to be appetising if not slightly patronising to a more realistic outlook on the Italian national identity. For someone inhabiting Aberdeen in January it is definitely an appetising idea to escape Scotland’s winter for the warmer climes of Italy’s Mediterranean coast.

National stereotypes aside, these images are a polar opposite to the images conjured when Italian rugby is added to the equation. Italy enter this year’s Six Nations on the back of a 22-match losing streak which began after they beat Scotland in Rome, during another championship which us Scots would like to forget.

There’s been several of those forgetful years for Scottish supporters and Italian supporters are perhaps more likely than others to be sympathetic to our plight. Though they may even be a little jealous that the team they’ve beat the most in the tournament have at least recorded some, if little success in recent years.

Returning to the tribulations faced by the Azzurri, and their unfortunate run is perhaps more frustrating by the fact they looked to be making real progress under Conor O’Shea. The Irishmen said as much when he resigned from the role last November after four years at the helm.

The run of results during the O’Shea years may not suggest an obvious improvement in fortunes for this football mad nation, but Italy’s two regional sides, Benneton and Zebre have both come on in this time. This can be seen in Benneton’s third place finish in Conference B of the Guinness Pro14 last season which is coupled with much improved performances in Europe.

It is also perhaps encouraging for the development of the game in the Mediterranean country that 31 of their 35 player Six Nations Squad play for these two sides. This is alongside the talent of players such as Jake Polledri, who is a regular starter in the back row for Gloucester.

Despite the talent of other key players including Tommaso Allan, Matteo Minozzi and Alessandro Zanni, there is a certain talisman which the Italians are likely to miss. Sergio Parisse planned to retire at the end of the world cup but wasn’t quite granted his wish as in an act of god, Typhoon Hagibis prevented the 36-year-old from having the send-off he wanted. The Azzurri’s final pool match in Japan against New Zealand being cancelled.

However, the former captain and formidable Number Eight has suggested he could return to the starting line-up to face England, Scotland or both. This despite being omitted from Head Coach Franco Smith’s squad for the upcoming championship. With 142 international appearances to his name, the third most capped player in rugby history would almost definitely be welcomed back by the Italian supporters.

The former full-back and Harlequins Director of Rugby, O’Shea has been replaced by Smith on an interim basis as the Italian Rugby Federation search for someone to take the reins full-time. The South African faces a baptism of fire when the Italians travel to Cardiff for their Championship opener against the reigning champions and world cup semi-finalists. Perhaps the Bok couldn’t have asked for a more challenging start to his regime.

Wales Vs Italy – Saturday 1st February @14:15:

Italy haven’t beaten Wales since 2007 when a controversial referring decision prevented the Welsh from taking an attacking line-out at the death after Chris White changed his mind about how much time was actually left after James Hook had decided to kick for touch. Search the match on YouTube if you want to see a rightly fuming Gareth Thomas. That 23-20 win is one of two occasions when the Azzurri have triumphed against their Welsh counterparts, the other coming in 2003 while Welsh rugby experienced a rather torrid time at the start of the decade.

However, Wayne Pivac and the Welsh aren’t likely to take any prisoners this time round and the Italians will need a huge, if not historic performance to come away with a win on the 1st February. Although this statement sounds harsh, Italy are yet to beat any other side than Scotland away from home. The closest they’ve come to this achievement being in 2006 when they played out an 18-18 draw with Wales in Cardiff.

A losing bonus point would be a more realistic for target for Smith and his men, but this looks unlikely. In my view, a feasible outcome would be for the visitors to leak tries in the second half, with the positive note being a couple of tries created by some Italian flair. My prediction – Wales by 20.

France Vs Italy – Sunday 9th February @15:00:

Next up for the Azzurri is a trip to the city of romance, although the atmosphere in the Stade de France is likely to be less welcoming than the sites of Paris. Although this game is often overlooked and forgotten about by the

home nations fan base, last year’s outing in Rome was exciting until the very end. This being until the home supporters had to watch Damien Penaud seal an unconvincing French win in the 78th minute.
Italy have beaten the French in 2011 and 2013, alongside a closely run 23-21 loss in Paris in 2016. On this occasion however, its my view that a French backline which is sparkling with talent will overcome an Italian side which would love to travel back across the Franco-Italian border with an unlikely result. I have been wrong before though. Very wrong. My prediction – France by 15.

Italy Vs Scotland – Saturday 22nd February @14:15:

From the outset Italy’s goal has to be record a victory this year and put a stop to a slump which has provided them with four consecutive wooden spoons and the unwanted record of having the longest losing streak in Six Nations history. This goal must surely be achieved if they want to smother the debates raging around the role which the 12th ranked side in the world play in the championship. When the Scots come a calling in Rome, Italy will have hope that they can deliver that elusive win. And why shouldn’t they be hopeful?

In the 12 victories which the Azzurri have recorded since the turn of the century, seven of these have come at the hands of Scotland. Their largest victory in the Six Nations being a 37-17 victory at Murrayfield in 2007, which was of course the Nixon family’s first outing to the rugby. Through misty eyes full of tears, we watched Italy storm into a 21-0 lead after just six minutes, as two of Chris Cusitier’s passes were miserably intercepted by the poaching Italians.

Eleven years after that sombre Scottish display, Italy should have beaten us in Rome. The Italians led the Scots 24-12 with 60 minutes remaining at the Stadio Olimpico after dominating their final match of the 2018 championship. Despite this, they some how blew their lead as Greig Laidlaw’s men managed to grab a victory from the jaws of defeat as a late Laidlaw penalty meant the game finished 29-27 in favour of the visitors.
Scotland’s away form has been below par for a long time and Italy have recorded five of their seven wins against the Scots in Rome. I predict another close one in the third round, but I’m going to say less than confidently that Scotland will steal it in a similar fashion to that match-up two years ago. I reckon it’s going to be pretty tight. My prediction – Scotland by less than five.

Ireland vs Italy – Saturday 7th March @14:15:

The record books show the Italians have struggled against Irish opposition since their participation in the Northern Hemisphere’s biggest competition began. On six occasions the men from the Emerald Isle have scored a half century of points against the Azzurri and are known for giving the Italians a bit of a beating in Dublin’s fair city. In 2018 it ended 29-10 in Ireland’s favour, while in 2016 Ireland were able to put 58 points on their Italian opposition.

Sandwiched between these two fixtures was a 63-10 battering at the Stadio Olimpico in 2017. Not a fine day to be an Italy supporter, though perhaps they can find some hope in re-watching Italy’s 22-15 victory against Ireland in 2013. Again, however, it saddens may to say that the best Italy can probably hope for is to salvage a losing bonus point from their trip to the Aviva Stadium.

Similarly, to the Welsh game, I predict Italy will be good value in that they should be able to snatch a couple of tries but will also likely leak a few. This is a game Ireland like to go all out in and if their tournament hasn’t been going quite like they would have wanted it to, Andy Farrel and his men aren’t likely to take any prisoners in this fixture. My prediction – Ireland by 40.

Italy vs England – Saturday 14th March @16:45:

It could just be the fairy-tale ending for a stalwart of not just Italian rugby, but of European rugby and the game on a global scale if Italy beat the English in Rome. This is of course dependent on the inclusion of Sergio Parisse into the Italian squad and more significantly, on a perfect rugby display by the hosts.

During 20 years of Six Nations action, the Italians have failed to better the English. This despite running them close on a few occasions and in 2017’s infamous ruck gate performance where the Italians attempted to use an unconventional method to challenge England in that encounter. It certainly left their visitors slightly befuddled and as so often in these fixtures, Italy were still in the running until around the 45-50-minute mark, before the Red Roses ran away with it.

From this year’s game I expect to a see similar structure being played out with England running away with it in the second half while Italy cross the whitewash two or three times. Expect it to be less close if the championship is going down to the wire like it did on Super Saturday five years ago. My prediction – England by 20.

My prediction for Italy – 6th with one point.

Word Associations:

Tommasso Allen – Sad he didn’t play for Scotland.

Conor O’Shea – He will be missed within the Italian coaching set-up.

Scotland – There for the taking in Rome.

Sergio Parisse – It would be great to see him pull on a light blue shirt for a proper send-off.

Rome – I would love to see a game there one day, though not a Scottish one. I’d rather it would be one I could actually enjoy without biting through all my finger nails.

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