State of the Nation: Italy

Date published: March 28 2016

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As we do at the end of a major tournament, we look at the state of affairs in each of the competing nations. First up, Italy.

Conor O'Shea's appointment last week provides the Azzurri with some much-needed optimism at the end of a tournament in which they have been genuinely battered and bruised.

Injuries hamper all teams but none more so that Italy over the last two months. Jacques Brunel rarely offers a smile and losing 18 players was unlikely to buck that trend. 

Any semblance of a competitive edge was long gone by the time they shipped 125 points within a week against Ireland and Wales.

It has been a brutal run. And what those absentees have exposed is that yes, Italy have young talents at their disposal. But there's a lack of quality depth.

Bringing in O'Shea is a smart move, but the arrival of Stephen Aboud is the real masterstroke. 

Aboud leaves Ireland after 25 years working to establish the national youth structures, now charged with a similar task running the recently introduced Centres of Formation – 32 across the country – along with the nine U18 Academies and the National Academy for the U20s in Parma. The loss of those players from their clubs into the federal structures is an issue to be addressed.

The often criticised FIR president Alfredo Gavazzi has stated that Aboud "will play a crucial role in the development of Italian rugby", which if true means he has his work cut out having claimed earlier this month that with the academies Italy will be competitive "within two to three years."

What about on the field? That dire drop goal effort from Sergio Parisse has almost been forgotten about in Italy's run to the Wooden Spoon but what an early coup that would have been to win in Paris.

Parisse should be commended for taking that responsibility on his shoulders but it was never the right option, another moment in a career with Italy that will be looked back on with a hint at sadness given the lack of success to match his undisputed excellence.

O'Shea's challenge is to not only convince Parisse to play on until 2019, when he will be 36, but to lessen the burden on him too by sharing the weight he carries across multiple new stars.

Italy need their defence to frustrate opponents again. Their set-piece too is missing the swagger of old as stalwarts age.

There are prospects, none more so than fly-half Carlo Canna whose progress over the last year has been rapid, and the performances of Michele Campagnaro and Gonzalo Garcia deserved more reward.

Relegation? Judged on this year alone that would seem harsh given the number of injuries which prevented Italy from turning out anywhere close to a best XV. Had they been thrashed consistently with a first-choice side then the conversation would be different.

Their poor long-term record is why talk about replacing them in the tournament exists. Surely the better solution would be to add Georgia to turn Six Nations into seven, rather than casting Italy off into the abyss.

O'Shea's record at the very least buys them more time to put a hold on those discussions. He, Mike Catt and retained forwards coach Giampero de Carli deserve time to put their stamp on this young group while Aboud gets to work behind the scenes.

Brunel's last act has been to give some of those young players a first taste of what Test rugby is all about. Nursing a bloodied nose, Italy have to patch up and look forward.

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