Glum. When they joined the Championship at the turn of the century, turning the Five Nations into Six, Italy were in the midst of the best period in their rugby history. They had the players, they had a growing supporter base, and they had already produced the results that seemed to make a long-term case for their inclusion.
But those halcyon days are long gone, and an oppressive mediocrity has since settled on the national team like a heavy fog on a still day. To make matters worse for the Italians, Scotland, once the team most likely to lose to them, have enjoyed a marked improvement since Gregor Townsend took over in 2017. This may well be the most open Championship for years, but there still looks like being only one realistic contender for the Wooden Spoon.
If there is a source of optimism for them, it comes from the improved display of Benetton both in last season’s Rainbow Cup and in the URC this season, as well as from the emergence of some extremely promising young players such as the Treviso club’s uncapped centre Tommaso Menoncello.
The saga of Sergio Parisse looks like it could still have a couple of chapters in it after the great No 8 confirmed in December that he will make himself available for Italy again during what he has said will be his last season before retiring from the game. Now 38, the Toulon forward had been due to bow out of Test rugby at the 2019 World Cup, but what would have been his last match, against New Zealand, was cancelled because of Typhoon Hagibis. Then he announced he would quit the international arena at the end of the 2020 Six Nations once he had had a chance to play one more time at the Stadio Olimpico – but the game against England was called off because of the Covid pandemic.
That seemed to be the end of Parisse’s 142-cap career, he duly sat out the 2021 Six Nations, and last month Kieran Crowley left him out of the squad for the first two matches, away to France and at home against England. But the head coach also left the door open for a late comeback in the tournament, and the prospect of a final fling at home to Scotland in round four could be very tempting.
Challenge for Scotland
More or less the same as it has always been since Italy joined the Five Nations in 2000 and celebrated by winning their first-ever match against the Scots, who had gone to Rome as defending champions. The Azzurri always target the Scotland match as the one they have most chance of winning, and have often found a way of at least staying in contention until the closing stages.
True, they have not won in the fixture since a 22-19 victory at Murrayfield back in 2015, but they lost by only four points at home in 2018. And, as both Edinburgh and Glasgow have found out against Benetton in the URC this season, an Italian side that is in the fight with 10 or 15 minutes to go visibly grows in confidence with every passing second.
Former New Zealand international Kieran Crowley knows the game in his adoptive country well, having coached Benetton for five years before taking over the national side in 2021 from Franco Smith, who was shunted upstairs to become Italian rugby’s head of high performance. Now 60, the ex-All Blacks full-back made Benetton steadily more competitive during his time there, culminating in last season’s surprise victory in the Rainbow Cup.
Crowley’s first Autumn Nations Series as Italy coach began in painfully predictable style as they lost to both New Zealand and Argentina, but they ended their campaign with a win against Uruguay. That was no surprise either, although it did demonstrate the squad’s ability to maintain a decent level of play.
As the only world-class player to have represented Italy, Parisse would clearly be the key man if he were to reappear in the side, such is his individual brilliance and the galvanising effect that his presence has on his team-mates. In his absence, however, much will be expected of stand-off Paolo Garbisi. The 21-year-old Montpellier playmaker will not only need to nail everything in his individual game, he will also have to inspire his team-mates into believing that they can stop the rot and actually win a game or two.
Last. They do have the ability to cause an upset, particularly at home, if their opponents have an off day. But it is far likelier that they will get on top in certain passages of play than it is that they will prevail throughout an entire match.
Niccolò Cannone, Pietro Ceccarelli, Epalahame Faiva, Danilo Fischetti, Marco Fuser, Toa Halafihi, Michele Lamaro (c), Gianmarco Lucchesi, Sebastian Negri, Ivan Nemer, Giacomo Nicotera, Tiziano Pasquali, Giovanni Pettinelli, Federico Ruzza, David Sisi, Braam Steyn, Cherif Traore, Giosuè Zilocchi, Manuel Zuliani.
Callum Braley, Juan Ignacio Brex, Pierre Bruno, Giacomo Da Re, Alessandro Fusco, Paolo Garbisi, Montanna Ioane, Leonardo Marin, Tommaso Menoncello, Federico Mori, Luca Morisi, Edoardo Padovani, Stephen Varney, Marco Zanon.
Sun 6 February, v France (3pm, Stade de France)
Sun 13 February, v England (3pm, Stadio Olimpico)
Sun 27 February, v Ireland (3pm, Aviva Stadium)
Sat 12 March, v Scotland (2.15pm, Stadio Olympico)
Sat 19 Match, v Wales (2.15pm, Principality Stadium)