State of the Nation: Italy’s improvement continues but left frustrated by lack of results

David Skippers
Italy State of the Nations image Six Nations 2023.jpg

Now that the 2023 Six Nations is wrapped up, we delve into the state of affairs in each of the competing nations. First up, Italy.

Despite it being another winless campaign for the Azzurri in the northern hemisphere’s premier international competition, there were several positives for head coach Kieran Crowley as he builds towards the World Cup in France which is less than six months away.

The 2023 Six Nations campaign was a frustrating one for Crowley and the Azzurri. After finishing the 2022 Championship with a momentous victory over Wales – which ended their 36-match losing streak in the competition – Italy kicked on by also claiming their first-ever win over the Wallabies during last year’s Autumn Nations Series.

That meant there was plenty of confidence in their ranks ahead of this year’s Six Nations but despite that optimism and definite improvement in their play, they fell short on each occasion and eventually lost all their matches.

Close but no cigar

The Azzurri’s campaign kicked off with a home fixture against 2022 Grand Slam winners France in Rome but despite going into that match as overwhelming underdogs the home side gave a good account of themselves and came agonisingly close to causing an upset.

They matched Les Bleus in most departments – and even outshone them in some – but could not hold their composure on defence during the latter stages of that Test and the visitors claimed a narrow 29-24 triumph courtesy of a converted Matthieu Jalibert try in the final quarter.

Although they fought back bravely against France and took a deserved 24-22 lead by the hour-mark, Italy made a slow start as they were trailing 19-6 midway through the first half.

They did not heed that lesson as it was a similar story in their next match, against England at Twickenham, with the Red Rose dominant in the first half and holding a 19-0 lead at half-time.

Once again, Italy sprung into life after the interval but it wasn’t enough to beat their hosts who eventually sealed a 31-14 triumph. Toulouse full-back Ange Capuozzo‘s outstanding attacking qualities proved a handful to France and England and he was one of their best performers in both those Tests.

Despite his brilliance, and excellent displays from their forwards, Italy missed their first choice fly-half Paolo Garbisi, who was sidelined for their opening matches due to a knee injury.

Garbisi returned to action in their next match against Ireland in Rome and he made an immediate impact as Italy looked sharper on attack. However, despite giving the men from the Emerald Isle a scare, there was no reward yet again as the Championship’s eventual winners claimed a tense 34-20 victory. That result also proved costly as they lost the services of Capuozzo to a shoulder injury which ruled him out of the rest of the Championship.

It was a similar story in their last two fixtures against Wales and Scotland as the Azzurri came off second best on both occasions despite delivering spirited performances.

As the second weakest team in the competition, Wales presented the best chance for them to register a win, especially as that Test was played in Rome, but the Azzurri had to play catch-up once again as they were trailing 22-3 at half-time before eventually suffering a 29-17 defeat.

They went into their final game against Scotland at Murrayfield in a desperate mood and it showed throughout that encounter as a lack of composure on attack led to their undoing in a 26-14 loss.

Crowley’s frustrations got the better of him towards the end of the tournament as he blasted the officiating of referee Damon Murphy in his side’s loss to the Welsh. Five successive defeats condemned them to another wooden spoon in the Championship with just one bonus-point – against France – amassed from the campaign and they are currently languishing in 14th position in World Rugby’s official rankings list.

Star performers

Although they failed to repeat 2022’s achievement of winning a match, the frustration in the Azzurri ranks is understandable as they were competitive in all their matches while several players impressed with fine performances.

After announcing himself during the latter stages of the 2022 Six Nations with his brilliance on attack, Capuozzo replicated that outstanding form during the early stages of this year’s tournament until his untimely injury against Ireland.

At 1.77 metres in height and 82 kilograms in weight, his physical attributes are not best example for the modern day professional player but his lack of size does not faze him and he showed countless times that he is one of the best attacking players in the business.

Of the other backline players, Garbisi’s playmaking ability was missed during the earlier rounds and although he showed some nice touches in their last three games, he was not at his best. Meanwhile, Juan Ignacio Brex and Pierre Bruno looked good with ball in hand and finished in eighth and ninth positions for metres gained during the tournament.

Amongst the forwards, the likes of captain Michele Lamaro, Sebastian Negri and Lorenzo Cannone complimented each other well as a back-row and they all impressed with their attacking and defensive work. Elsewhere, front-row duo Danilo Fischetti, Simone Ferrari and second-row Federico Ruzza also caught the eye with some fine performances, especially in the tight exchanges.

The way forward

With the World Cup kicking off in less than six months, Crowley will be hoping for his team’s improvement to continue and that their fortunes will change in the build-up to the global showpiece and at the actual tournament.

Italy are set to play two World Cup warm-up matches, against Scotland at Murrayfield on July 29 and Ireland at the Aviva Stadium on August 5. Following those fixtures, they will face Romania on August 19 and Japan on August 26 in Italy at venues which are yet to be decided on.

The Azzurri have been drawn into a group alongside hosts France, New Zealand, Namibia and Uruguay. Although they are not expected to beat the likes of Les Bleus and the All Blacks, Italy should get the better of the other two countries in their group.

The Azzurri’s attacking style of play should also win them some admirers amongst neutral spectators at the World Cup but Crowley’s main goal will be to return to the victory trail, especially during those warm-up games, as he aims to make a positive impact at the main event and not be mere also-rans.

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