Italy set to embrace new expansive approach?
November 9, 2012
Kris Burton is set to be charged with pulling the Azzurri's strings in the coming weeks © Getty Images
This month should be very interesting for Italian rugby fans. The Azzurri are due to play Tonga in Brescia on Saturday, the mighty All Blacks in Rome next weekend and Australia in Florence on November 24 in an eagerly-awaited rugby feast that will also will also double as a sort of 'first year exam' for coach Jacques Brunel.
In his first 12 months in charge the Frenchman from Courrensan has done an excellent job in broadening the group of players who will compete for a place in the Italian squad for the Rugby World Cup in three years' time. He also blooded several young prospects while simultaneously avoiding a fifth consecutive Six Nations wooden spoon. Behind the newspaper columns and the press conferences, he has worked hard to change the philosophy of rugby in Italy adding that typical Gallic flair to his traditionally defence-orientated charges. Now it is a case of waiting to see whether that hard work pays off in the form of a progressive and engaging style of play and, most importantly, victories.
So what can we expect from the Azzurri in the coming weeks? The biggest surprise Brunel will deliver to the world is an Italian team who are willing and able to play attacking rugby. No joke. On the very day he arrived in Parma, the former Perpignan supremo sat down with captain Sergio Parisse and his cohorts to let them know of his style before insisting the players had better get used to it. He wants to add potency to the stubbornness shown by Benetton Treviso in frustrating their European rivals in the Heineken Cup and PRO12 that has bred confidence among the high number of Azzurri involved with the green and white and the newly professional franchise of Zebre, which was formed in June by the Italian Rugby Federation. While still without a win in Europe the team are showing a vitality hitherto missing from the way Italy play the game.
So expect an Italian team offering much more than admirable defence and that will try to offer a more expansive approach than seen before. Question marks remain over the tactical kicking game, which Brunel recently revealed would be an area he was looking to strengthen in training. He views this aspect as key to playing good, territorial rugby and dealing with extreme pressure in defence and attack.
Set pieces will be another key area, especially in the scrum with veterans Martin Castrogiovanni (31) and Andrea Lo Cicero (36) set to rack up another gruelling November campaign. Meanwhile, in the lineout, Italy will be without injured 'maestro' Marco Bortolami and another leader must rise with the same aerial and strategic abilities. If Italy want to produce a much wider game they must secure quality ball from the set pieces. It's as simple as that.
A win against Tonga would be a perfect way for the Azzurri to kick start their autumn campaign. The Pacific Islanders are 12th in the International Rugby Board world rankings (one position behind Italy) and arrive in Brescia having only had a few days to reacquaint themselves with each other and their team's style. Conversely, Italy have prepared for these Tests with extreme precision. Tonga will represent a tough physical challenge but should be the ideal challengers against whom to refine what Brunel needs to see working in ahead of the much harder Tests against New Zealand and Australia. If Italy succeed in delivering a much-improved tactical kicking game we will see a one-way contest. If it doesn't come off, Italy will have to complicate a game that should - on paper - result in a comfortable win. The danger for the Italians is a close game that would bring a fierce final 20 minute - a risk the Azzurri can't afford to take.
The Wallabies clash could also provide a victory. That may come as a shock to many but with an almost-full-strength team boasting the required experience, confidence and knowledge they can get the job done. But of course it will not be easy and the rankings show how hard Italy must fight to win the contest. They will face a Wallabies team that will be physically worn out from the harsh encounters with France and England and with one eye on their final encounter with Wales. Australia coach Robbie Deans need to make a choice as to whether he wants to play a quick and wide game and if so he will presumably need some fresh legs. If he intends to stick with playing his stars he can't afford to play at a high tempo. In both cases, it will be an almost unique chance to shine against a top-three nation.
The clash with the All Blacks may not prove a similarly welcome result but in one way that game already represents a victory. Italy will pack the 70,000-plus-seater Stadio Olimpico, the usual home of AC Roma and Lazio, for the second time this year. This was a fanciful dream just few years ago. It would have been the third time if not for the heavy and unprecedented snowfall that welcomed the Six Nation game against England in February. On that occasion more than 53,000 battled against the cold and huge transportation issues suffered by a totally paralysed Rome to cheer the Azzurri's best-ever performance against the English stars.
With more than 20,000 people expected in Brescia and almost 30,000 in Florence for the clash against the Wallabies, the Rome sell-out would bring the total attendance figure of the year well over the 200,000 mark - maybe even closer to an incredible 250,000 barrier (for the five games this year). It's a superb record for a country that is enjoying a new rugby revolution that may also lead to further sell-outs for the three Six Nations games to be played on Italian soil next year.
Watch out, because if a capacity Stadio Olimpico becomes 'routine' then that will place Italy shoulder to shoulder with Wales in third-place in the Six Nations' average attendance league. That amount would be ahead of Scotland - Murrayfield has less than a 70,000 capacity - and well above Ireland, whose Aviva Stadium holds little more than 50,000. It's evidence of unthinkable growth from the 24,000 people who watched Italy's Six Nations debut against Scotland in 2000, and it proves that the long-term visions of the ruling Six Nations committee are close to being realised.
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