With the Six Nations set for kick-off this weekend, Planet Rugby takes a look at each team's chances in 2013. Next up, Italy!
These days avoiding the Wooden Spoon is no longer Italy's sole objective at the start of a Six Nations Championship as they now truly have the capacity to throw a spanner in the works of the more-established competitors.
Last Year: The Azzurri started 2012 with a new coach, promises of a new style and new ambitions. Seven weeks later, after their pack had caused visitors to Rome all kinds of trouble - only to be let down by their goal kickers - and they crumbled after an hour whenever away from home, we were left wondering if much had really changed. To be fair, Jacques Brunel was never going to revolutionise Italy's style overnight. The tournament stats did reveal that Italy made more offloads and kicked less than Wales, England and Ireland. So, when seen in perspective, their campaign must be considered a moderate success. France predictably swept to an easy win in Paris but a week later England were lucky to escape with a narrow win in treacherous conditions after being outscored two tries to one in Rome. It was a bitter pill to swallow and the Azzurri unravelled dismally in Dublin, where they lost by over 30 points. Things went only marginally better in Cardiff, where the lost by 21. However, a deserved win over Scotland on the final day saved Brunel's debut championship.
This year: Skipper Sergio Parisse summed the situation up perfectly last week: "It's no longer enough for us to play well, to be improving and be involved in good matches. The gap between us and the other teams is closing, but for the credibility of the team we need results." An excruciatingly narrow loss to the Wallabies in November and Treviso's mid-table status in the Pro12 are reasons to believe good things are on the horizon. Italy will always fancy their chances against Scotland - Edinburgh is the one destination where they will harbour genuine ambitions of victory - and after seeing Samoa undo Wales in November, Brunel would have put a red circle around February 23 on his calendar. The Stadio Olimpico will be buzzing for all three home games, with France arriving on the opening weekend and the Irish heading to the Italian capital on the last day. As a sign of a new generation emerging, the squad does not feature either Bergamasco brother... for the first time in 13 years! But Italy's perennial problem may well be their downfall: Be it home or away, they don't stand a chance if their goal-kickers aren't on song. Last year's strike rate of 52 percent was unforgivable. Unfortunately, a world-class fly-half is still the missing link.
Players to watch: Italy's style may be evolving, but their hopes will nevertheless still hinge on a core group of forwards including Parisse and prop Martin Castrogiovanni. Castro might not be a regular starter for Leicester (hence his desire to move to Toulon) but he remains the rock on which Italy build their all-important scrum. Young Tommaso Benvenuti is maturing into a classy centre but all eyes will be on Luciano Orquera, who is set to don the 10 jersey.
Prospects: Italy remain the tournament's dark horses. They probably lack the firepower to beat the current French side, even on home soil, and hopes of victory at Twickenham would be unrealistic. However, it would not be a surprise to see a win coming from the home games against Ireland and Wales. Crucially, this year's clash against Scotland is at Murrayfield, which doubles' the Azzurri's chances of finishing with the Wooden Spoon, but we reckon they could sneak up a table a place or two.
3 Feb: v France - Home
9 Feb: v Scotland- Away
23 Feb: v Wales - Home
10 March: v England - Away
16 March: v Ireland - Home