This has been a much-debated topic over the last few years, with many rugby fans feeling that Italy are simply making up the numbers at the top table of European rugby. However, are they really that bad? Can they get back to where they used to be, in the days of Castrogiovanni and Bortolami? In this article, we will enter this debate, seeing whether Italian rugby can be saved.
Defensively, they concede too many penalties; a long-standing fact in their performances. This comes from a lack of confidence, and we have seen how, once they give one away, they can’t stop making basic mistakes. This is ultimately what they need to work on as a high priority to start challenging in games more.
Their mistakes are not down to a lack of effort, however, with individual players always giving everything they have, with lock Niccolo Cannone putting in a huge shift against England in the Six Nations this year, whilst winger Monty Ioane had some big collisions with Welsh attackers. However, is this enough? Ultimately, Italy might have the individual talent, but they struggle to all work together, and this leads to them leaving spaces open and shipping points by the dozen.
Their head coaches have tried different things to give them more of an edge, with current incumbent, South African Franco Smith, even switching his props around, bringing his better players onto the pitch around half an hour into the first half, as opposed to changing them at around 55-60 minutes, as is usual. This he hopes will give them more energy when the opposing team are tiring.
It is tactical decisions like these that show how Italy plan their game approaches, which gives us hope that they will eventually find a way to be competitive again.
In attacking phases, they have begun to play quicker rugby, moving the ball around with more speed, which has led to gaps increasingly being opened up in opposing defences. This was particularly prominent in their opening Six Nations game this year against France, and it was helped by increased patience in possession. However, this good early play always drops off as soon as they lose their confidence, and that is the main problem that they need to address.
One area where they have always looked good is on the wings. Their options over the years have included Mattia Bellini and Edoardo Padovani, but this season Luca Sperandio and the aforementioned Ioane emerged as primary choices, with both being strong in attacking and defensive phases of play. This gave them a constant threat in the wide channels, meaning they always had a chance of scoring tries.
Their biggest threat comes from their back row, with those players being their main ball-carriers, driving forwards and forcing gaps to open in opposing lines. This year, Braam Steyn and Jake Polledri were missing through injury, but Sebastian Negri was there, alongside Johan Meyer. When these players have a good game, Italy always have more of a chance, so this is another thing they can build on to create problems for opposing teams.
They can also adapt their tactics during games, again showing how they have the right ideas, but can’t execute them. In the second half of this year’s Six Nations encounter with Wales, they changed their lineout approach, playing balls over the top and avoiding rolling mauls. This kind of thinking does imply, that they are not in trouble, and just need to be given time to find the right way for them to play.
Lack of leadership since 2019
With the legendary Sergio Parisse on the field, Italy always had a player who could keep the team’s spirits up and get them going forward again when they were looking down. However, since his international retirement after the 2019 Rugby World Cup, they have lacked the same leadership. Experienced hooker Luca Bigi has been their skipper since Parisse’s departure, but he doesn’t have the same influence. Now, when they lose confidence, there is no way for them to regain it. It doesn’t help that the captain is in the front row, as he can’t get messages across to the back line as easily, for example.
One way or another, they need to regain the leadership and authority that Parisse had, because, without it, they can’t be saved.
Young stars coming through
One thing we should remember is that the current squad are young and still learning the international game. Their half-back pairing of Stephen Varney and Paolo Garbisi, for example, have a combined age of 40, whilst centres Federico Mori and Marco Zanon are 20 and 23 respectively. All have brought energy and new ideas to the squad, willing to try different things and listen to what they are being asked to do, but they will still make mistakes at the same time, which is expected.
Varney and Garbisi have proven to be a really exciting duo in the midfield, controlling the play well during this year’s Six Nations and setting up attacking opportunities around the pitch. In a few years time, maybe they will be the ones leading Italy into a new era; one where they trouble oppposing defences on a more permanent level.
As a discussion point from this, should we be criticising Italy at all? Maybe we should let them make their mistakes and learn from them, developing in their own time as a team? These are key questions, and are not easy to find the answers to.
In conclusion, there is no doubting that, based on performances in the last few years, Italian rugby is in trouble, especially as they haven’t won a Six Nations match since 2015. However, it can still be saved, as they have plenty of individual talent and skill, but now need to bring it together, which will make a major difference. A big talking point amongst fans has been whether they can maintain their energy levels for a whole game, but their Six Nations match against England earlier this year proved that they can, as they pushed the Roses all the way.
Teams like Georgia have argued that they should have a chance to compete in the Six Nations, but we saw in the Autumn Nations Cup last year that they were not on the same level, and Italy are still the better team out of the two. Maybe, given the Azzurri are still a young team, we should just let them be, and hope they get back to their levels of old as soon as possible.