With the Six Nations kicking off this weekend, we take a closer look at the prospects of each competing team. Next up, Italy.
After a tricky November with two losses, Italy have their work cut out to match the heights of last year's Six Nations campaign.
Last Year: Two wins for boss Jacques Brunel, and a noteworthy fourth placed finish was a real encouragement; though the coach's claim his side could win the 2015 World Cup still looks a tad far-fetched. Skipper Sergio Parisse saw out a ban for match official abuse, but was typically outstanding on his return; the Azzurri's victories based on the foundation of dogged defence.
The fly-half position has been a problem for Italy for over a decade, and they still struggle to find a man capable of both kicking well and igniting some form of attacking rugby. Luciano Orquera was touted once again last year as the solution to this problem, but his performances in the tournament ranged from masterful to suicidal. The greatest indictment of his inconsistency came against Scotland. After a fine inside support run saw sent him clear of the defence, he was left facing Stuart Hogg with options either side. Hogg committed himself to the pass; Orquera had but to throw a dummy and stroll under the posts. Instead, he tossed the ball away, whereupon it was snatched in mid-air by the Scot, who promptly galloped home from 80 metres. Brunel's men retained that maddening tendency to shoot themselves in the foot.
Of course, the pack retained its traditional uncompromising solidarity, but to take their game to the next level, and move away from the perennial tag of wooden spoon favourites, Italy needed an injection of flair.
This Year: Injuries could prove a real problem for a team that boasts precious little squad depth and a tiny elite player pool. The likes of Andrea Masi and Gonzalo Canale faced lengthy spells on the touchline, and Brunel has spoken of the need to "usher in young players as quickly as possible".
There are signs the Italians will look to shift away from the set-piece dominated game they have favoured in the past. Though scrum and lineout remain areas of major strength, they have a more exciting range of backs now than in the past, and both Brunel and Parisse have spoken of their desire for a more "complete" approach to the game.
Mirco Bergamasco, playing several levels below his opponents at Rovigo, has been reinstated to the squad alongside brother Mauro. Their tenacity and experience will prove vital to any success the Italians enjoy; thanks in part to the squad's "injury crisis" and the blooding of youngsters.
The Italian defence has also taken a turn for the worse since last year's tournament. With the side rotated and switched around, there were heavy defeats to South Africa, Samoa and Australia in June and November. In fact, the only win since their final day win over Ireland in 2013 came over a Fijian team that were at one stage down to 11 players.
Key Player: Putting to one side the enormous influence of captain Parisse, the value of a powerful tighthead at Test level continues to rise under the aegis of the IRB's scrum protocols. Though some of the old guard have struggled to adapt, Martin Castrogiovanni remains up there with the world's best; the cornerstone of the Italian pack.
One to Watch: 20-year-old fly-half Tommaso "Tommy" Allan made headlines last year when he chose to represent Italy over Scotland, for whom he had played age-group representative rugby. The Perpignan youngster is a great prospect for Jacques Brunel, with the intelligence and distribution to unlock defences. He is raw, and his slight stature will make him a target for opposition strike runners, but Allan is rightly exciting the Azzurri faithful in a position that has never really been filled since the retirement of Diego Dominguez.
Prospects: Italy look set for a tricky campaign this season. Travelling to Wales first-up will be a tough start, and it's hard to see France performing so listlessly for a second year running under the pressures of underachievement and public expectation.
A visit to Dublin and a Rome meeting with England seem unlikely to bear any fruit, with the Azzurri's best hope of a win when they welcome Scotland on the 22nd February.
Feb 1st v Wales
Feb 9th v France
Feb 22nd v Scotland
8th March v Ireland
March 15th v England
By Jamie Lyall