Italy evolving despite looming Wooden Spoon
March 12, 2014
Michele Campagnaro has come of age in this championship © Getty Images
With four defeats, 120 points conceded, 14 tries leaked and the Wooden Spoon looming on the horizon, this year's Six Nations campaign may look like a backwards step from the glories of 2013 for Jacques Brunel's Italy.
In fact, Saturday's clash against an England side who will be chasing points looks set to pile misery on Italy. Thrashed by Brian O'Driscoll and his Irish team-mates in Dublin last weekend, the boys from the south will have to regroup and stick together to avoid another embarrassing outcome.
But looking a bit more carefully at the games played so far by the Italians, the 2014 Six Nations offers far more positives than one may think. In Wales and in both the first-halves against France and Ireland, Italy have faced up to the opponents' physical challenge and the young guns introduced this year have given the team a much needed injection of new, raw talent. That added touch of youth is something Italy have been missing and in the past we have rarely seen the tries like the ones scored by centre Michele Campagnaro in Cardiff and Leonardo Sarto in Dublin.
We are slowly seeing a more competitive and a more offensively skilled younger Italy. This is essential in ensuring they keep their place in the competition and build on those previous historic wins, though a triumph over England is still elusive after the Ireland hoodoo was broken last year.
The truth is that the end of last year's Six Nations was a crucial turning point for Brunel's road to achieving the goal of reaching the quarter-finals of the 2015 World Cup, the target he previously laid out. Right after the whistle of the historic win against Ireland in Rome, Brunel realised with that bunch of players his team's chances of reaching the final eight in England come 2015 was close to zero. He saw his counterparts starting to blood youngsters and while Brunel had previously backed Sergio Parisse and co. he knew he had to kick-start a mini rejuvenation process if his team were to knock-off their fellow Pool D companions France and Ireland in a year's time.
Since getting the job in 2011, Brunel has given youth its chance. Some of those have been a mainstay of the last 12 months like versatile second-rows Joshua Furno and Francesco Minto, dynamic prop Alberto De Marchi, hooker Davide Giazzon, and backs Tommaso Benvenuti and Tommaso Iannone. Others faded away like 2012 and 2013 hero Giovanbattista Venditti who has suffered with injury, though he is still only 24, and a few did not take their chance and may have already missed the train to England in 2015.
Since the start of this campaign Brunel has introduced players like Campagnaro, Sarto and Angelo Esposito while the vision of the Italian Rugby Federation secured the playmaking quality of former Scottish Under-20 fly-half Tommaso Allan (born in Vicenza) and possibly the punch of South African 2012 Junior World Cup Champion Braam Steyn, who may make the team in the not so distant future. Campagnaro, Sarto, Esposito and Allan left their mark on the try-scoring stakes as four of the six efforts managed by Italy have come from them and they also stepped up defensively, filling the void left by the injured Andrea Masi.
Leonardo Sarto's form has been a plus for Italy © Getty Images
There are still a few players that will likely wear the Italian national teams jersey for the first time in the summer, in November or in next year's Six Nations campaign (one is surely Tiziano Pasquali, a 19-year-old powerful prop involved in the Leicester Tigers system since 2011) and that will bring even more freshness and talent into a group that is far more familiar than ever before.
In Dublin, recalled Tito Tebladi played with confidence at scrum-half and that's good news for Italy who are eagerly waiting on Edoardo Gori to take the next step up. Tebaldi moved to Wales last summer and enjoyed technical and tactical growth in just a few months at the Ospreys. Against the Irish he moved the ball superbly for almost the whole first-half, showing some unexpected tidy calm and patience.
There's also a huge positive in the growing interest in the game. The 60,000 plus attendance figure recorded in both home games of this year's Six Nations (there will be a sold out Stadio Olimpico on Saturday for the clash against the English) confirmed the love Italians feel for international rugby and that is a huge point in developing the game in a soccer-driven country like Italy. It helps the Italian rugby organisation secure much-needed media coverage and commercial opportunities to fund its present and future growth.
So the future for Italy looks bright like never before and, now that the PRO12 saga seems to be over, the Italian Rugby Federation can offer its youngsters opportunity in the broadened Academy system which will see them eventually blossom into international players.
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