Welcome to the RWC2019 Debriefs. The World Cup is now over and a new 4 year cycle begins, but the first stage of any cycle should be looking back at how things went – what went wrong and what went right – before looking on to how things go for the next cycle to ensure qualification to RWC2023 (if they haven’t automatically qualified) and to make sure they enter that tournament in peak form.
I will be going through these debriefs alphabetically, so today I will be casting my eye over Italy.
Italy automatically qualified for this year’s tournament by finishing 3rd in Pool D during the 2015 tournament.
The Azzurri failed to win any matches on their way to finishing bottom of the Six Nations table. They lost again to Ireland, France and England in their warm-up matches, but managed a comprehensive 85-15 victory over Russia. Though the results weren’t going their way, there were some signs of improvement throughout he squad, while back rowers Braam Steyn and Seb Negri had very good seasons to cement their place in the back row. Sadly, Leonardo Ghiraldini suffered a serious injury that eventually saw him miss out on making an appearance at the World Cup.
- Pool Stages (3rd in Pool B)
- Italy 47-22 Namibia
- Italy 48-7 Canada
- South Africa 49-3 Italy
- New Zealand C-C Italy
Coming into a pool that contained 2 of the tournament favourites and 2 clearly weaker teams, it would have been a shock for Italy to finish anywhere other than 3rd, though they had the perfect schedule of games to build into the tournament.
Against Namibia, they had a clear dominance in the scrum and arguably should have won by a much more flattering scoreline, except for a raft of handling errors that killed a number of chances. Against Canada, they were a bit more clinical and tore the Canadians apart, with the back row trio of Seb Negri, Jake Polledri and Braam Steyn running hard and strong to give the backs a platform. Building into the tournament after missing most of the preceding season through injury, Matteo Minozzi looked like a superstar for Italy with good smart defending and a varied attack.
Finally taking on a greater test, things quickly went horribly wrong as they could not keep their props on the field. Simone Ferrari was off injured after just 2 minutes and his replacement, Marco Riccioni didn’t even make it to the 20 minute mark before injury ruled him out too. Then just after halftime, starting loosehead Andrea Lovotti got himself sent off for spearing Duane Vermeulen in a clearout – an offence that sole remaining prop Nicola Quaglio was lucky to also not be dismissed for. While Steyn continued to be a star in this game, the extra man made the difference as South Africa added 5 tries to the 2 scored before the red card.
Qualification to the knockouts was still mathematically possible (though highly unlikely) if they could beat New Zealand, but their tournament came to a premature end as Typhoon Hagibis caused disruption to the tournament and led to the match being cancelled.
Well first things first, Italy need to find someone to replace head coach Conor O’Shea, who left the post after the World Cup. While results on the whole didn’t go the Azzurri’s way during his tenure (9 wins from 40 Tests), O’Shea’s job was so much more important than that, working on Italian Rugby as a whole. Under his watch, the Italian Pro14 franchises have improved so much, the U20s are on the rise and a new generation of superstars have started to emerge, led by Negri, Polledri and Minozzi. This work must continue in order for Italian rugby to continue to grow so that they can jump to the next level.
As with many nations, these next few years will see some transition in the playing group, with Ghiraldini and Alessandro Zanni unlikely to feature for the Azzurri again and Sergio Parisse likely bowing out in the Six Nations. Even if these players do continue to play for a while longer, their time in the starting XV is surely done. Parisse is a superstar, but the trio of Negri, Polledri and Steyn have already developed a fantastic balance and it feels that the team performs better when the trio are all on the pitch. In the back line, there is plenty of quality coming through, while the vast majority of the backs are young enough to have at least 1 more World Cup in them. What they do still need to find, in my opinion, is a top level fly half. Tommaso Allan has definitely improved over the last couple of seasons, but I still don’t think he has the quality to utilise the quality of the players outside him in the way needed to get more regular victories.
The tight five has been a weak point for Italy in the last few seasons, but it looks like there is quality coming through there who will grow into great players over the coming years, with Federico Ruzza, David Sisi and Simone Ferrari likely leaders in the engine room over the coming years.
The important thing right now is to continue getting regular rugby against Tier 1 nations. There has been so much talk amongst fans and pundits of how Georgia should enter the Six Nations at Italy’s expense, but that is not fair to a team that is clearly on the up. If the improvements of the last few years can continue and they can continue to regularly play against top-level opposition, then this is a team that could surprise people in 2023.