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Pack of eight: All you need to know about Italy

Today we concentrate on the ever-improving Italians, can they claim another big scalp this year?

The Azzuri get revved up before meeting Scotland last year.
The Azzuri get revved up before meeting Scotland last year.
Image: ©INPHO/Getty Images

Haven’t they got a new coach?

Jacques Brunel is the man contracted to build on the decent foundations laid by Nick Mallet. Formerly an assistant coach to France under Bernard Laport, Brunel has crossed the Alps after four years with Perpignan.

Brunel is said to be keen on widening the net in search of home-based players. His predecessor often partook in some Giovanni Trapattoni style loyalty when it came to squad selection.

They beat France last year, did they pull up any other trees?

Unfortunately the landmark 22 -21  victory over the French looks like a freak on the form guide. The Azzuri finished with the wooden spoon, as they have done for all but three of their 12 tournaments. Still, the improvements have been obvious since Treviso and Aironi entered the Magners (now Pro12)  league in 2010.

A big win was on the cards last year. Ireland needed a late, great drop goal from Ronan O’Gara to avoid defeat in Rome. All Italy’s hard work was in vain, however, as they ceded their lofty second-bottom position to the winless Scots in the final game.

Were they any use in the World Cup?

Their great improvement was just not enough to cause any shocks down in New Zealand, though it did ensure that they cemented a place as a tier-two nation with comfortable  bonus point wins over Russia and the United States. You may also remember that they were the opposition for Ireland’s second best performance down under, when we turned on the style with a 36 -6 win in Dunedin.

Still, they have a great pack of forwards.

Indeed they do; and in particularly their scrum in not be messed with: Castrogiovanni, Lo Cicero, Ghiraldini, Bortolami and Bergamasco. The names just trip of the tongue.

Behind the pack they still have the same old failings, they haven’t  had a decent fly-half since Diego Dominguez which has seriously stunted the growth of their outside backs. As we seen under the closed roof in Dunedin, Italy revel in poor conditions, catch them on a good day and they struggle to cover the gaps.

Who is the star man?

The captain remains the guiding force of his country. Sergio Parisse, 28, is one of the finest number 8′s in the world and has never done anything short of laying his life on the line for Italy. He can do it all; the dirty work on the ground, the hard yards with ball in hand, he’s even been known to drop a goal or two along the way (as you can see on the 1.45 mark below).

YouTube credit: EllliotJack4

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Any old warhorses retired? Any new Italian stallions to watch out for?

Brunel has cut loose three regular components of the Azzuri squad. Though all on the wrong side of 30 it would be hard to argue that any of Salvatore Perugini, Fabio Ongaro or Carlo Del Fava are long past their best. The pack is obviously the one area where the Italians have plenty of competition.

There won’t be a huge amount of room for blooding new kids in the tough uphill struggle that is the Six Nations campaign. Aironi prop, Alberto DeMarchi looks the most likely to get some game time. The other new call ups are the outside backs; Luca Morisi, Giovambattista Venditti and Angelo Esposito, they are most likely to have a watching brief this year with a view to gaining experience in the Pro12 before getting a chance to step up a level with the Azzuri during the summer and autumn tests.

They have a good goal-kicker now, don’t they?

Yes and no. Mirco Bergamasco did an incredible job off the tee last year, but he will miss the opening fortnight of this campaign with a shoulder injury. The baton will pass to either Kristopher Burton of Treviso or Aironi’s Luciano Orquera, whoever is given the nod at number 10.

Oh, he’s a big loss, any other injury strife?

This weekend, at least, it appears Burton will be Brunel’s only choice at fly-half as Orquera is struggling for fitness. Other doubts hovering over the camp before the trip to Paris concern a calf strain for DeMarchi and a minor niggle for flanker, Paul Derbyshire.

Even so, Italy are always at their rip-roaring best on the opening weekend and although France could not countenance losing the opening home match, they could be harbouring some very sore bodies next week before Paul O’Connell & Co. arrive on their doorstep on Saturday week.

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About the author:

Sean Farrell

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