Preview: Italy v Argentina

Date published: November 22 2013

Limping through their final matches of 2013, Argentina's tough year ends in Rome at the Stadio Olimpico against the Azzurri.

Limping through their final matches of 2013, Argentina's tough year ends in Rome at the Stadio Olimpico against the Azzurri.

Los Pumas' latest horrorshow came in Cardiff, conceding 40 points against Wales in a hapless defensive performance that betrayed the progress Argentina had seemingly made from their time in The Rugby Championship.

Daniel Hourcade's late arrival as head coach hardly helped their preparations for the November Tests, but Argentina's run against Tier One teams this year is concerning.

On average over ten matches they have conceded 37.8 points per game, including 73 against South Africa and 54 against Australia. Los Pumas can play with flair at times and impress with their forward pack, but their defensive frailties are making them uncompetitive.

The missing influences of Juan Martín Fernández Lobbe and Juan Martín Hernández have been telling, but otherwise the Pumas have been nearly at full-strength.

Whether fatigue is playing a factor after a long year is up for debate, but their showing against Wales was appalling at times.

Los Pumas can produce so much more and perhaps against a similarly leaky Italian defence they may find a breakthrough. Whether they produce a result or an improved performance, Hourcade needs something to take into 2014.

A fresh centre pairing of Gabriel Ascárate and Horacio Agulla will look to be more effective than Santiago Fernández and Marcelo Bosch, whilst Juan Imhoff returns on the left wing seeking his first Test try since the win over Wales last year.

Talented back-rower Pablo Matera drops out of the side with Benjamin Macome coming in at number eight, to shift captain Juan Manuel Leguizamón to the openside.

Italy with typical irregularity have selected a new face at fly-half, as Tommaso Allan gets a run in the blue jersey.

Half-Scottish and half-Italian, the former Scotland U20 international has been heavily involved for Perpignan in the Top 14 and, after years of chopping and changing by Italy, could provide the long-term answer at fly-half that Jacques Brunel is looking for.

The Azzurri's defence has also left plenty to be desired this November, letting in 50 points against Australia and then another 31 in the win over Fiji last weekend in Cremona.

Italy at least are scoring tries – seven in their last two matches – which is something that couldn't always be said in years gone by (but then large periods of play against the Fijians were being played against a team with at least one man in the bin.)

There is an enormous sense that Italy should be achieving more, or at least not shipping 50 points against the Wallabies and scoring more than the 37 they put on Fiji.

The forward pack is talented and imposing – Sergio Parisse and Martin Castrogiovanni are two of the best players over the last decade – whilst the new crop of backs led by Allan, Edoardo Gori, Giovambattista Venditti and Luke McLean are all sharp and promising.

Italy just need consistency. After beating Fiji, a good result against Argentina to take into the Six Nations will put them on the right footing, as they seek to follow up this year's fourth-placed finish.

Essentially a shootout between two of the flimsiest defences around, whichever team can find a way to plug the sinking ship fast enough first will take the win.

Ones to watch:

For Italy: More often than not overshadowed by Parisse in the back-row, Alessandro Zanni continues to rack up the caps on Italy's blindside. With 79 to his name at the age of 29, Zanni at this rate should soon join Parisse and Castrogiovanni in gaining 100 caps for the Azzurri around the 2015 World Cup. The 6ft 4 Treviso ace continues to top tackling stats in every game he plays.

For Argentina: The 25-year-old Nicolás Sánchez has succeeded Felipe Contepomi as Argentina's number ten and appears set to hold the position down for some time. Plying his trade with Bordeaux-Bègles in the Top 14, Hourcade's aim will be for Sánchez to form a long-term partnership with Martin Landajo building towards the next World Cup. The fly-half should pass 100 Test points in Rome on Saturday.

Head to head: For years Martin Castrogiovanni and Marcos Ayerza packed down together for Leicester Tigers, winning several pieces of silverware along the way and confirming their statuses as world class props. Now they go up against one another at the Stadio Olimpico both as friends but also highly competitive rivals. Italian-Argentinian scrummaging is as intense as it gets and these two should serve up a treat on their side for Chris Pollock to keep an eye on.

Previous results:
2012: Argentina won 37-22 in San Juan
2010: Argentina won 22-16 in Verona
2008: Argentina won 22-14 in Torino
2008: Italy won 13-12 in Cordoba
2007: Argentina won 24-6 in Mendoza
2006: Argentina won 23-16 in Rome
2005: Argentina won 39-22 in Genova
2005: Italy won 30-29 in Cordoba
2005: Argentina won 35-21 in Salta
2002: Argentina won 36-6 in Rome
2001: Argentina won 38-17 in Buenos Aires

Prediction: Argentina's struggles this year don't seem to be anywhere near an end based on recent weeks, but Italy are hardly playing perfectly. This should be high-scoring with the hosts coming out on top. Italy by seven points

The teams:

Italy 15 Luke McLean, 14 Giovambattista Venditti, 13 Michele Campagnaro, 12 Gonzalo Canale, 11 Tommaso Iannone, 10 Tommaso Allan, 9 Edoardo Gori, 8 Sergio Parisse (c), 7 Robert Barbieri, 6 Alessandro Zanni, 5 Valerio Bernabo, 4 Quintin Geldenhuys, 3 Martin Castrogiovanni, 2 Leonardo Ghiraldini, 1 Michele Rizzo.
Replacements: 16 Davide Giazzon, 17 Matias Aguero, 18 Lorenzo Cittadini, 19 Marco Bortolami, 20 Joshua Furno, 21 Tobias Botes, 22 Luciano Orquera, 23 Tommaso Benvenuti.

Argentina: 15 Joaquín Tuculet, 14 Lucas González Amorosino, 13 Horacio Agulla, 12 Gabriel Ascárate, 11 Juan Imhoff, 10 Nicolás Sánchez, 9 Martín Landajo, 8 Benjamín Macome, 7 Julio Farías Cabello, 6 Juan Manuel Leguizamón (c), 5 Mariano Galarza, 4 Manuel Carizza, 3 Maximiliano Bustos, 2 Eusebio Guiñazú, 1 Marcos Ayerza.
Replacements: 16 Santiago Iglesias Valdez, 17 Nahuel Lobo, 18 Matías Díaz, 19 Tomás Lavanini, 20 Pablo Matera, 21 Tomás Cubelli, 22 Javier Rojas, 23 Santiago Cordero.

Date: Saturday, November 22
Venue: Stadio Olimpico, Rome
Kick-off: 15:00 local (14:00 GMT)
Referee: Chris Pollock (New Zealand)
Assistant Referees: George Clancy (Ireland), JP Doyle (England)
TMO: Gareth Simmonds (Wales)

by Ben Coles