Destined for last place, again, is there any hope for Italy that they can upset the odds? Listening to their enigmatic Director of Rugby, Conor O’Shea, you would certainly think so.
The task at hand is certainly a big one. Some bookies have the Azzurri at 1/18 to finish the 2018 6 Nations with the wooden spoon with their closest rivals, Scotland, at 13/1.
Any such talk is brushed aside as positivity pours out of every cell of the likeable Irishman. The ‘plan’ was laid out to the media. Italy are rebuilding, they have two professional sides that are improving and have talent coming through the pipeline. Fitness levels and professionalism are on the rise and as long as this side improve year-on-year, O’Shea believes there is hope for Italy.
What would be considered a ‘good’ 6 Nations for this Italian side?
Winless in 2016 AND 2017, you have to look all the way back to the Scotland game in 2015 for the last time the Azzurri won a 6 Nations match. They even suffered the ignamy of a pointless performance at Murrayfield last time out.
Is one victory the goal for O’Shea’s Italy or would a series of impressive performances be considered job-done?
Considering the fixtures and the form of the other nations, it may be the latter. Setting the tone from the start of the tournament with a full 80 minute performance against defending champions England is a start.
Finding the Positives
A 2016 victory over South Africa vaulted the Italians out of a serious low point in their history and staved off the craving from some for their elimination from the 6 Nations. The recent Autumn International series was difficult but they produced a fine display against Fiji for a much needed victory .
Now that O’Shea has put his stamp on the organisation of Italian rugby as a whole, he is surrounding himself with international calibre coaches. The 75-cap experience of Mike Catt provides guidance to this young backline and can help the emerging talent of fly-half Carlo Canna. Wayne Smith is now on the books to join the coaching setup before the 2019 World Cup. One of the most sought-after coaches in World rugby, Smith, has said he will provide support from afar during this tournament.
Italy’s decline in the final 20 minutes of a game is widely known and yet little has been done over the past 17 years to rectify the problem. Until now. When O’Shea first took the job, he claimed the main focus was “fitness, mentality and nutrition”. A new partnership with Wattbike in December 2017 is the latest step in a process to put the Italian players at the same level of the other elite nations.
This new philosophy is not just aimed at the players in the national squad. O’Shea’s hope for Italy rugby encompasses the two professional sides in the Pro14 as well. Under this regime, all players in Italy are provided with the same technology. This 2018 Italian side should start showing the fruits of this labour.
Italy’s Journey Through the 2018 6 Nations
This campaign won’t be an easy one for Italy and contains 3 away fixtures on the bounce at Ireland, France and Wales.
Eng (H) 04/2/18
Ire (A) 10/2/18
Fra (A) 23/2/18
Wal (A) 11/3/18
Sco (H) 17/3/18
The sensible money would be on an all-or-nothing showdown with Scotland on the final day of the tournament. However, much might depend on the form and mindset of the opposition. If Wales are struggling for wins, given up on the competition, a shock victory at the Principality Stadium could be a possibility.
And you never know, O’Shea, Catt and Smith may just have conjured up something from the deepest, darkest depths of the rule book in order to catch England off-guard again. No-one can argue that last years’ no-ruck tactic was the one of the most creative plans in international rugby.
Key Questions – Hope for Italy?
Here are the five key questions for Italy heading into this years’ 6 Nations tournament.
1. Can they find a reliable >85% goal kicker?
2. Are fitness levels in place to match elite teams for the full 80 minutes?
3. Can Wayne Smith impart a new philosophy and winning mentality from afar?
4. Are there any more tricks up the sleeve?
5. Can the Italian scrum live up to its former glory?
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