The Italians have a lot to play for in this year’s World Cup. Not only are they the underdogs, playing for an upset to get them into the quarter-finals. They are also playing for respect among those who believe they should be demoted from the 6 Nations for upstarts, Georgia.
[Our resident Italian 22Metri has combined to give you an insiders view with these first 5 things]
Italy has been part of the Rugby World Cup nations since the first edition in 1987, they never managed to exit the group stages, but managed to win two games each of the last three editions. Italy has slowed down their climb of the World Rugby rankings that saw them reaching the eight place in 2007, their highest position ever, they are now 15th placed, behind Japan and slightly ahead of the USA. A place that probably does not reflect the real talent of the team.
1. The key players
The most acclaimed number 8 in the world, Sergio Parisse, is the captain and the soul of the team. Recently crowned French champion with Stade Français, Parisse is the most capped and most capped captain of Italy, he will turn 32 soon and will most likely be at his last RWC appearance.
Powerful Sergio Parisse playing against Ireland
Cult figure Martin Castrogiovanni has gained a good reputation during his years in England and has been regarded as one of best tight-head props in Europe for years.
The Italians proud themselves of a powerful scrum, and Castro will be a key part of it.
Wasp’s fullback Andrea Masi has been elected player of the tournament in 2011 edition of the 6 nations and is often called to cover for several position at international level, playing in the back line playing fullback, centre and on the wing.
2. The lack of a flyhalf
Since the retirement of Diego Dominguez, Italy never had a real world class number 10. An hole that the two youngsters called in the RWC squad, Perpignan’s Tommy Allan and debutant Zebre’s Carlo Canna will difficulty be able to plug.
Diego Dominguez is still missed by the Italian fans
The lack of a quality flyhalf not only hinges Italy’s open play but causes them to be less dangerous from the tee, often nullifying the penalties won by their powerful scrum. In a soccer fanatic country most kickers prefer a round ball over an oval one, and the azzurri are suffering from this.
3. The Argentinian connection
Italy has been able to line up several players born in Argentina, the strong ties and history of immigration from Italy to South America make it possible to trace an Italian ancestor in almost every family. Players born in Argentina are now reduced to two: Castrogiovanni and Aguero and with Argentina getting more and more involved in the Southern Hemisphere competitions, the trend will soon stop.
Martin Castrogiovanni, maybe the last of the great Argentinians playing for Italy
Sergio Parisse despite being born in Argentina, can not be counted into this category. He was born in Baires when his parents were temporarly living there due to his fathers occupation.
4. An Ageing team
Cause of the decline of the azzurri is the lack of fresh quality players, their oldest player is the 31 strong team for the RWC is 36 years old Mauro Bergamasco, at his record equalling world cup. A good flanker who became infamous for a shocking game at scrum half at Twickenham, who has been reintroduced to the team by French head coach Jacques Brunel.
Twelve players are older than 30 years and unfortunately for Italy the youngers are in the most crucial roles of flyhalf and scrumhalf.
Still strong at 36, Mauro Bergamasco
5. Struggle in the 6Nations and in the RWC
Never been a serious contender, Italy has been in the 6 Nations since 2000 and in the fifteen editions has never managed to win in any foreign country apart from struggling Scotland, but at home they have been able to beat France, Ireland and Wales. They have never beaten England in any test match.
Italy won its first match ever in the Six Nations against Scotland
At the Rugby World Cup Italy has never survived the first round, but has improved massively from the 70-6 loss in the first ever RWM game against the All Blacks in 1987 to more solid performances in the last editions.
Unfortunately for the azzurri, this edition will again most likely not see them out of the pool phase, in an European dominated group D, Italy will face world number 2 Ireland, number 7 France and challengers Romania and Canada.
However Italy is expected to win against the Oaks and the Maple leafs to confirm its spot in the 2019 edition.
6. The Form Guide
Since their introduction to the 6 Nations tournament in 2000, Italy have struggled for consistency. With the exception of a victory over Scotland, which lifted them off the bottom of the competition this year, they have failed to win a game since their surprise wins over France and Ireland in 2013.
They proved the point by going down by 41 in their last warmup hitout against Scotland. With just one more warmup match against Wales on 5 September, the Azzuri need to shore up their plan before they take on France in their RWC opener on the 19th.
7. The Flyhalf Conundrum
Since the retirement of Argentine-Italian hero Diego Dominguez in 2003, Italy have struggled to connect their formidable forward pack with their creative and often flamboyant backline. They have tried a great many options at 10 in the last several years. Most recently, the team seemed to be settling in with Kiwi import Kelly Haimona in the position.
With Haimona out of the squad due to a broken leg suffered in the 6 Nations, the Azzuri will be leaning on young guns Tommaso Allan and Carlo Canna at pivot.
Allan is the veteran of the pair at 22, with 15 test caps. Allan was called into the Italian side after playing U20s for Scotland, his father’s home country. 23 year old Canna has just one test under his belt, where he came on as a replacement centre in Italy’s recent loss to Scotland.
In naming the inexperienced pair to share the flyhalf responsibilities, the Italian staff are taking a big risk with a very large stake at this World Cup.
8. Sergio Parisse
He’s the captain, but more than that, he’s Italy’s talisman. He’ll be 32 at the World Cup and will go into the first match with 112 test caps to his name after 13 years at the top level. Known as one of the best 8s to play the game, Parisse has reached legend status in Italy.
Parisse – in addition to the normal set piece, straight running and hard defence expected of world class loose forwards – is an exceptional handler of the ball. Well known for his hard running on the edge and his ability to put players into space with no-look and behind the back passes, he certainly is a player to watch.
9. Luca Morisi
There’s a lot of depth to the Morisi, both on and off the field. The 24-year old has 14 tests to his credit, but more than that, is well known for his recovery and return from injury. In 2013, Morisi was injured in the opening minutes against Fiji and stayed on after receiving treatment. After the game, it was found he’d been playing with a ruptured spleen, which was removed.
Morisi is a pretty big guy at 183cm and 95kg. But he’s more than a crash centre, as he showed in a breakout match against England in this year’s 6 Nations tournament. His two tries were classics (2nd and 4th in the video), and matched the flair he’s shown with Benetton Treviso in the Pro12.
10. Upsides and Downsides
The Azzuri are expected to perform as they always have in the World Cup – exactly in the centre of their pool. In the three previous World cups, Italy has won two of their four games and finished in third spot in pool. This year, with Ireland and France above them, as well as Canada and Romania below, the expectation would be the same.
But there is a subtext to this World Cup for the Italians. Firstly, if the team were to recapture the spirit of their 2013 6 Nations campaign, they might well find themselves in their first ever quarter final. In that year, they pulled off surprise victories against France and Ireland. While it’s unlikely they could beat both, a victory over one – more than likely France – would probably see them into the quarters.
But there’s a significant downside for the Italians this year. There is a movement growing in Europe that wishes to see Georgia promoted to the 6 Nations at Italy’s expense. While Georgia presses it’s case in Pool C, a loss to Canada or Romania for Italy would make the case that much more valid.