In eleven years of Six Nations rugby, Italy have become a vastly improved side. But there remains one nagging problem.
In eleven years of Six Nations rugby, Italy have become a vastly improved side. All parties would agree on that. But there remains one nagging problem.
They have a strong scrum, a solid defensive system and a proficient set of backs that are lacking only in the ability to 'create something out of nothing'.
Where they haven't taken any steps forward is in their half-backs. The 9 and 10 pairing of Diego Dominguez and Alessandro Troncon is revered so fondly in Italy, in part, because of the vacuum they left behind in their positions.
At scrum-half: Paul Griffin, Pietro Travagli and Simon Picone have all occupied the number 9 jersey for decent lengths of time. At 10 the list of pretenders is longer: Rima Wakarua, Roland De Marigny, Luciano Orquera, Ramiro Pez, Andrea Scanavacca and Andrea Marcato. While there have been successes in the post Dominguez-Troncon era–against Scotland in 2008 and in 2010 (N.B. 'Tronky' was still very much at large when Italy downed both Scotland and Wales in 2007)– but no-one has managed to replace the golden boys of Italian rugby; not in the true sense of the word.
So what are Italy's half-back prospects in the current age? Starting with the scrum-halves Planet Rugby takes a look at those tasked with filling the void.
The man currently in possession of the 9 shirt is the 20-year-old former U20 captain (it just about adds up). Known as 'Ugo', he made his debut for the national side this November in the 32-14 reversal in Florence. Praised as 'exceptional' by Nick Mallett after the match, the South African coach rewarded Gori with a full 80 minutes in Italy's crucial match a week later against Fiji. Something he hadn't granted to an Azzurri scrum-half in 19 Tests prior.
In his two performances so far he has succeeded in creating more time for his fly-half by consistently delivering the ball at chest height and on the front foot. In defence he has a great appetite for work, making 15+ tackles on his debut against the Wallabies. But his enthusiasm for the physical needs to be reigned in a touch; two of the four tries Italy conceded in November were as a result of Gori, at 12 stone 7 pounds, defending too close to the ruck and being driven out the way by heftier members of the opposition.
With only two caps to his name but with the warm-hearted backing of Mallet, Gori should start against Ireland on February 5. But will he stay there?
He made the 9 jersey his own in 2006 but has since been plagued by injuries and inconsistency; earning the majority of his 30 test caps as a substitute.
In 2010 he returned and was in fine form, coming off the bench against England, Scotland and France to great effect. In those matches Canavoisio played with a Troncon-esque swagger and style; finding space for his forwards to bust holes in the opposition defence and releasing his backs only when they had a disorganised defence in front of them. He scored two tries to boot and went on to end the season as Italy's top try-scorer.
Rightly so he ousted Tito Tebaldi for the final match of the Championship, against Wales. But then, and this seems to be the eternal problem with Canavoisio, he turned in a hesitant and unsure performance which set the platform for Wales to record a 33-10 victory. All of which must have that left Nick Mallett reeling and confused in equal measure. However's Italy's coach still believes in Canavoisio and has selected him in the 24-man training squad for the Six Nations. If he gets another opportunity as a starter, Canavoisio must, this time, show that he's made of the right pasta.
Although not in Nick Mallett's Prima Squadra, the Aironi scrum-half would be the logical person to call up in the event of an injury to Gori or Canavoisio.
An emerging talent with ball in-hand and a stoic defender, Tebaldi found himself dropped to the 'A' squad during the Autumn for the scrum-half cardinal sin of not consistently finding his fly-half with his passing. Perhaps it was just a bad day at the office against Argentina in Verona; but regardless Tebaldi will have to improve. Injuries permitting, (his own and those of his rivals) he could make a return towards the end of the tournament.
By Jack Zorab