Italy Slowly Growing As They Eye Another Big Foe
While the Azzurri may have ended the Six Nations in fifth place, the third time in a row they have been positioned in the cellar, the Italians can reflect on a solid campaign.
Four losses may not constitute a success in typical terms, but there is no doubting that gradually Italian rugby is getting stronger, breaking a two-year losing streak in the Six Nations by defeating Scotland 16-12 this year, and competing against the bigger teams.
Indeed, their win against the Thistles was put into perspective when looking at the way that Scotland crashed Ireland’s Croke Park party, a loss that ensured there was precious little Craic for their supporters to celebrate in Dublin post match.
Analysis of their matches showcases their development.
In the second half against Ireland, they lost 3-6; a remarkable result considering they had been put to the sword by the then reigning champions in the first half.
When England arrived in Rome, few would have predicted that the Italians would have been in a position for most of the match to win, only to lose 12-17, with only a 74th-minute drop goal by Jonny Wilkinson sealing the game for the visitors.
And against France, they came back in the 12 minutes to put on 14 unanswered points. Two tries against the Six Nations champions...the same number Wales scored and more than any other side in the tournament.
Their future is bright.
Next season the Magners League will welcome both Benetton Rugby and new super club Aironi Rugby, meaning that Italian rugby now has a more natural progression: from Super 10, to Magners, to Heineken Cup rugby, to the Six Nations.
But most of all this Italian team is gaining some ticker. Coach Nick Mallet seems to be moving on from the favoured damage control game plan he has implemented in the past, and while the side’s attack still struggles, other facets are certainly of test class.
"This team never lack heart," the former Springbok coach said.
"I'm happy with our defence. We conceded three tries against Wales when Italy sides of the past would have let in eight. They are great lads with desire to develop, and we scored five beautiful tries in the tournament."
When Italy was recording some famous results late last century, most of them relied on the boot of Diego Dominguez, and they have missed both his control from fly half and his radar like boot.
While it is spread between two players, Italy seems to have found solutions in these areas.
Veteran Mirco Bergamasco is becoming an accomplished kicker, while former Penrith Panthers playmaker Craig Gower is growing all the time.
While the Australian often plays centre for his club Bayonne (which inhibits his development at flyhalf), his league bred defence and confidence with ball in hand is helping the Italians.
"Gower isn't a flyhalf by nature, but he's a talented player," former Italian forward Giampiero de Carli told Reuters.
"For now, he's our best solution. The team can cook things up in his hands, create chances.”
Italy now turn their attention towards the Springboks, with Mallet no doubt likely to again lament his side's horrendous schedule, which by year’s end will see them boast seven games against Tri Nations powers as well as ten Six Nations matches in approximately 16 months.
But it is fast tracking the team with their evolution.
It is unlikely that the Italians will break their duck against South Africa, having lost all of their eight previous encounters.
But their last two defeats, by 26 and 22 point margins, have shown improvement over time, and they will look to try and take a Tri Nations scalp in coming years.
If their progress continues, could the Wallabies or Irish be an upset scalp for the growing Azzurri at the 2011 Rugby World Cup?
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