What Italy really needs in the Six Nations, even more so than in the past, are wins. Because this year's Championship won't be a mere rugby tournament for Italy this time around. With the surging pressure of nations such as Romania and Georgia knocking at the championship's door asking for a chance to prove themselves at the top table in Europe, Italy cannot rest on their laurels.
It would be easy to believe that Italy are at the vanguard of the anti-expansion movement, that the most fierce opponent of a relegation playoff format sits behind a desk in the Italian Rugby Federation headquarters in Rome. However, in the last four years -- since the inclusion of two Italian clubs in the Guinness PRO12 -- Scotland would have been the playoff contenders twice, and Italy only in 2014.
While a Six Nations without Italy won't disturb anybody's sleep much at night, what about a tournament without Scotland? Missing one of the Home Unions would harm the essence of the most admired, loved yet traditional rugby event of all time. More, what kind of a devastating impact would a year without any Six Nations fixtures for the Scottish Rugby Union books? The damage to a slowly progressing nation like Italy would be fractional compared to the impact on the SRU.
It all comes down to the trade-off between growing the game in Eastern Europe versus the risk of losing a share of a stable and improving business model. The Italians hold a very marginal role in that.
All the same, the debate makes one thing clear for Italy this year: win against Scotland. Vern Cotter's side must visit Rome on Feb. 27. That would be a wonderful chance for the gladiators of the Eternal City to avoid the wooden spoon and turn the political pressure on to their opponents.
And while it would not be a surprise if the team relies on the old-fashioned bulldozing work of its scrum and maul to get some points on the scoreboard, in reality the 2016 Six Nations will celebrate a new era for Italian rugby.
Coach Jacques Brunel and captain Sergio Parisse will lead the way in the last tournament of their Azzurri careers, while the expected arrival of Harlequins supremo Conor O'Shea as Brunel's successor gives everyone involved a sense of hope for the future.
The leadership gap that Parisse -- last season's most valuable player in France's Top 14 -- will leave is a worrying predicament.
Aged 33, the Italian captain -- by far the best player to have ever worn an Azzurri shirt -- will probably retire from international duties before the next edition of the beloved Championship. That is forcing the Italian Rugby Federation to make an impressive effort to find an appropriate successor. At the moment there are no players with such a charismatic yet winning attitude in the country and there's a sense of urgency that is spreading to all levels of Italian rugby.
However, there is an exciting injection of youth, talent and exuberance in the Italian squad. The revolution was not planned, unfortunately, more a consequence of the huge number of defections that Brunel has had to contend with.
In all, 13 players involved in the Rugby World Cup last year will be missing, with 10 newcomers. Huge assets like Luca Morisi, Andrea Masi, Quintin Geldenhuys, Tommaso Allan, Michele Rizzo, Joshua Furno, Leonardo Ghiraldini and Angelo Esposito are all out injured. Simone Favaro, Glasgow Warriors' furious tackler, has decided to concentrate on club rugby this time around, as has Leicester Tigers prop Mathias Aguero. All of which means there will be room for youngsters that have impressed during the PRO12 season -- especially in the black and white of Zebre.
"Fans should expect a team that will try to play a much more open style of rugby than it used to adopt under previous managers.""Enrico Borra
Fly-half Carlo Canna, forgotten during the World Cup, and South African-born workhouse Andries van Schalkwyk, are by far the most eagerly anticipated newcomers. Canna, a 23-year-old playmaker, wears the No.10 shirt right from the start against France on Saturday, having exploded with Zebre this season. For Van Schalkwyk, there is a place on the bench and a hint at the kind of depth that has been beyond a team that has historically failed to deliver in back-to-back weekends.
Italy's squad also includes three surprise call-ups from the domestic league: centres Tommaso Catello and Mattia Bellini, who gets a start on the wing in Paris on opening weekend, plus versatile back David Odiete, one of the most admired pupils in junior rugby and a shock selection at fullback to face France.
Van Schalkwyk will have to make do with a place on the bench, while fellow South African Abraham Steyn -- a member of the Springboks' Under-20 World Championship winning team in 2012 (one of his two tries in that tournament came against Italy) -- has not made the matchday 23. He used to share the dressing room with Handre Pollard, Paul Willemse, Pieter-Steph du Toit and 2012 Junior Player of the Year Jan Serfontein; now he is in the same squad as Leonardo Sarto, Giulio Bisegni and Padovani, players he faced in Bellville almost four years ago.
Brunel will also welcome back Zebre captain George Biagi and his clubmates Kelly Haimona and Bisegni, three potentially key-players that missed the Rugby World Cup through injuries or wrong calls.
On the pitch, fans should expect a team that will try to play a much more open style of rugby than it used to adopt under the previous managers. The grey areas are still the game management in the key moments of each match, which is more of a cultural and mental issue -- and the tactical kicking game, something surprisingly unimproved in the four years under Brunel. However, that said, the future of Italian rugby looks bright.