First in our set of previews ahead of the 2017 Six Nations, we examine the prospects of Conor O’Shea’s Italy.
There is an air of expectation amongst Italy’s supporters as head coach O’Shea takes charge of the Azzurri for the first time during a Six Nations campaign.
O’Shea took over the reins from Jacques Brunel during last year’s June Tests and they currently have a 50 percent winning record under his guidance.
Their historic 20-18 victory over South Africa in Florence during 2016’s end-of-year Tests was arguably the greatest result in their history but their inconsistency came to the fore the following weekend when suffering a 19-17 defeat to Tonga in Padova.
Last year: 2016’s Six Nations campaign was one to forget for the Azzurri as they lost all five their fixtures and finished at the bottom of the table.
They delivered their best performance of the competition in their opener when they suffered a narrow 23-21 defeat to France at the Stade de France in Paris.
The Azzurri couldn’t replicate that performance during the rest of the tournament and in their next match they lost heavily (40-9) to eventual champions England in Rome before Scotland beat them 36-20 at the same venue in Round Three.
The following weekend they headed to Dublin, where they faced a ruthless Ireland side who outscored them by nine tries to one in a humiliating 58-15 defeat and their campaign ended with another heavy loss (67-14) against Wales in Cardiff, sealing the Wooden Spoon.
This year: After their woeful performances in 2016’s tournament, the only way is up for the Azzurri. They kick off their campaign with back-to-back home fixtures against Wales and Ireland in Rome.
Of those two matches, the one against Wales could be the easier one as the 2016 runners-up will be without the services of their regular head coach Warren Gatland, who has stepped down from his role to take charge of the British and Irish Lions on their tour to New Zealand.
In Round Three, they take on defending champions – and this year’s tournament favourites – England at Twickenham and although a win is highly unlikely, O’Shea will be hoping for a competitive performance from his troops.
After impressing against France in Paris last year, the Azzurri will be keen to turn the tables on les Bleus in Round Four before they head to Murrayfield where they face Scotland in their final match of the tournament.
Key players: As usual, the Azzurri will depend heavily on their inspirational captain and number eight Sergio Parisse who is one of the best players in his position in the world.
When on song, the veteran is a joy to watch but he showed against France last year that he is only human when he botched a last-gasp drop goal attempt which ultimately cost his team the match.
Another player who will carry a huge burden on his shoulders is young fly-half Carlo Canna who has shown flashes of brilliance since making his Test debut in 2015. He must be on song in the goalkicking and playmaking departments if the Azzurri want to secure that elusive victory this year.
Players to watch: In midfielder Michele Campagnaro, Italy have a superb game-breaker who has the ability to change the course of a game with a moment of brilliance.
Also keep an eye on rookie scrum-half Giorgio Bronzini who was one of the Azzurri‘s stars in that memorable win over the Springboks – in only his second Test – last year.
Another player who will be keen to make an impact is robust flanker Simone Favaro. O’Shea named him as captain when Parisse was suspended for last year’s clash against Tonga and although they lost that match, the 28-year-old will be keen to prove that he is the right man to lead the team when the veteran back-row eventually retires.
Prospects: Once again, Italy head into this year’s competition as overwhelming underdogs and all the other countries will fancy their chances of beating them.
If the Azzurri can win one of their first two matches, they could make the other teams sit up and take notice but the chances of that happening is not very high.
Securing just one win will be a huge psychological victory but with the competiton amongst the more fancied teams being tight, that is highly unlikely and they should be wooden spoonists again this year.
Sunday, February 5 v Wales (Stadio Olimpico)
Saturday, February 11 v France (Stadio Olimpico)
Sunday, February 26 v England (Twickenham)
Saturday, March 11 v France (Stadio Olimpico)
Saturday, March 18 v Scotland (Murrayfield)