Analysis: How Italy can end their drought

Date published: March 12 2019

Our analyst Sam Larner returns to Planet Rugby this week to assess Italy‘s chances of ending their long Six Nations drought against France.

Italy are not very good at the moment. They last won a game in the Six Nations in Round Three of 2015 which amounts to 21 games without a single victory in that time. There’s no way of looking at those numbers and concluding anything over than; Italy are rubbish in the Six Nations.

They are, they’ve never finished above fourth, in the 19 complete tournaments they’ve played they have only finished out of bottom spot six times. They have never scored more points than they have conceded and they have only scored 20 points or more per game three times but have conceded 40 or more per game five times.

The calls for promotion and relegation are compelling, if you are going to have a team in the tournament just getting smashed each week why not make it a team who could also develop, someone like Georgia for example. The doom and gloom around Italy is well founded but is there any tiny glimmer of life for the Italian readers to cling on to? Well, they can’t finish anywhere other than sixth, the wooden spoon is theirs, but there has been some green shoots of progress. The closest Italy’s points for and points against ever got was in 2013 when they were separated by just 7.2 points. They also won two games that year, the joint highest ever total. In the three following tournaments the points against total climbed unrelentingly but the points for total stayed relatively static. Since that peak in 2016 the points against has been trending downwards and there is a chance it might even creep under 30 come Saturday afternoon, which would be the lowest total since 2013.

It might be largely miserable but it’s not entirely without hope for the Azzurri. They face one of the worst French teams in recent years and they did push both Wales and Ireland close. I fully anticipate the French pack to dominate the Italian one so the Italians will need to be creative. If anything, the Italians would benefit from just tearing up their playbook entirely and just playing what they see in front of them. This Italian team has some exciting playmakers and it’s time that they were let loose.

Tommaso Allan is the key to Italy doing well. Everything that has been good about Italy’s play is led by Allan. It might be sacrilegious but I would actually choose Allan over Sergio Parisse at this stage if only one could play for Italy. Unfortunately, Allan’s rise has coincided with a backwards slide for the Italian forwards and they are now regularly being dominated by more physical packs. If Italy could combine Allan with their pack of the early 2010s then they would stand a much better chance of claiming that elusive victory, unfortunately currently Allan is being asked to do a huge amount to carry the team.

He is capable of it though. In the above picture you can see how he takes the ball to the line and fixes the Irish defenders. The outside players start in this quad formation and Allan just needs to pick the correct player to get on the outside of the Irish defence.

Allan doesn’t just play within a structure – where he needs to attack the line and then make a decision about where to distribute the ball – he also has elite skills to capitalise when the game loses shape. In this example he throws a 30 metre left-handed pass out to the wing that leads directly to an Italian try. Italy have consistently failed to deliver when they have been in try-scoring opportunities but the presence of Allan makes that a more likely possibility.

One of the skills that Allan brings is consistently attacking the line. So few of the rotating cast of fly-halves Italy had pre-Allan offered any running threat. Allan does and in this example he spots that England wing Joe Cokanasiga is keen to drift out wide but Joe Launchbury has left a small gap. Allan fixes the outside man and accelerates straight through the gap in one of the very few moments of joy for Italy on Saturday.

That skill reared its head again against Wales when Allan received the pass out the back from Parisse, the two key Italian players combining. The hard dummy run fixes the defence and Gareth Anscombe needs to drift to cut the overlap but Allan goes straight through the hole that is left. Crucially you’ll see that there’s no phases counted and it’s late in the game. When Italy get embroiled in an arm wrestle in their forwards and the phases climb up they lose virtually all of their attacking endeavour. The forwards smash it up and the attack gets more and more narrow until the ball is turned over.

They are a much better team when they make a break and go all in to score on that phase or the very next one. Allan gets his hands on the ball and makes everyone else around him better. If France are to be defeated it will happen if Italy completely throw away the structured game plan and give complete control to Allan.

Here you will see the situation after another clean break against Ireland. Most teams might reduce their attack here and ensure that they don’t lose the ball but despite Italy having almost their entire pack on the far side of the field they are trusted to move the ball well enough to score the try, and they do.

Conclusion

There’s no doubting that Italy are not a good side, they may be improving but they aren’t getting the results. In recent years Scotland have improved significantly and it’s no longer a case of just sharing the wooden spoon from year to year. That gives Italy much fewer chances at victory. There has been an improvement but Italy haven’t scored more than 20 points per game since 2003 and haven’t conceded fewer than 30 points since 2013, that is really not the recipe for success.

Having said all that, Italy do have some reasons to be cheerful. Their club teams are improving quickly and that should feed through into the national team. They also have a string of younger players emerging into the senior side and when Parisse does eventually need to hang up the boots it looks like Italy will manage.

What is required though is a complete mindset shift. They can no longer win games by fronting up in the forwards and strangling the life and excitement out of games. For possibly the first time in their history they are an attacking team who possess a decent set of backs, they should cut loose on Saturday and use them. Maybe the end of this losing streak will be within sight?

by Sam Larner