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Six Nations - Italy Preview
Improving Azzurri eye fresh scalp
Enrico Borra
January 30, 2013
Italy's Jacques Brunel at the unveiling of his Six Nations squad, Stadio Olimpico, Rome, January 11, 2013
Will Jacques Brunel be as buoyant in a few weekend's time? © Getty Images
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Players/Officials: Jacques Brunel
Tournaments/Tours: Six Nations
Teams: Italy

Analysis from ESPNscrum

  • Key Player: It is always hard to look past their talismanic skipper Sergio Parisse as his status as their most indispensable player has been the case for the past few years, but keep an eye on Robert Barbieri. He has already bagged six tries for Treviso this term in the PRO12 and could pack a punch in the Azzurri's back-row.
  • Rising Star: Edoardo Gori is one of Italy's shining lights at scrum-half and could finally get their backline firing which has traditionally lacked tries. He started against Australia and New Zealand during the autumn internationals and did not look out of place against the illustrious opposition.
  • Crunch Clash: Their round two clash against Scotland has already been labelled the 'wooden spoon' decider by some cynics but it could define Italy's Six Nations. A win at Murrayfield could give them the momentum they need to get a Welsh or Irish scalp in Rome in the following weekends.
  • Coaching clinic: The jury is still out on Jacques Brunel. He will be looking for two wins at least in this season's competition to underline the progress his side has made.
  • Verdict: It is likely to be another fruitless Six Nations for Brunel's men. Until they get some continuity and real class at fly-half then they will not be worth more than a win or two. They have some undoubted talent in their ranks, but even the likes of Parisse and Martin Castrogiovanni may not be enough to lift them out of fifth or sixth place.
  • Odds: Italy are 200/1 to win the tournament with Bet365 and 4/9 to be the recipients of the wooden spoon. If you fancy a punt on Barbieri to be top try-scorer then he is a huge 250/1.

There was a time when Italy's Six Nations rivals used to land in Rome, enjoy a few days of warm and sunny weather, have a peaceful weekend in the Eternal City, play a bit of rugby and grab a couple of points for the Six Nations standings. Those days are gone.

The climatic madness that brought heavy rain, fog and even unprecedented snowfall in one of the world's hottest rugby capitals last year also pushed the Azzurri to a surprising level of competitiveness. When the 70,000-plus seats of the iconic Stadio Olimpico erupted into life for Jacques Brunel's men, any sense of 'holiday' for the visiting team abruptly turned into a complete hell. Now those same nations know very well that to steal two Championship points from Sergio Parisse's hands in Rome, they must survive one of the most physically exhausting battles possible on the international rugby stage.

And it may not be enough. Last year, the Italians succeeded on shipping the wooden spoon to Edinburgh for the first time in five years, winning the much anticipated last-place clash by a narrow margin in front of a new Six Nations attendance record for the Italians (72,354). That game was in fact one of the most dominant displays the Azzurri put together against their historic rivals.

In the same tournament they went closer than ever to collecting the first win against England. In November, history repeated itself with the surprising performance against world champions New Zealand, in front of another sold out Stadio Olimpico which witnessed one hour of very committed and wise play.

The fact is that Rome is now a fortress hard to silence and 'capture' and Brunel will use the three home games granted by this year's fixture list to force some historic results. It probably will not come against France when Les Bleus come to town on Sunday to begin its charge for the trophy. But instead, this year's illustrious victim may very well be Wales or Ireland. Or maybe both of them.

Declan Kidney's men and England are the only teams in the Six Nations pot that Italy have yet to beat. Keep an eye out because this may very well be the year where Jamie Heaslip and his colleagues will fall in Rome. Support from the rugby-desperate Italian fans will be given in swathes yet again. There are already more than 150,000 tickets sold for the three matches scheduled at the Stadio Olimpico during the next seven weeks, about 65,000 of which will be granted a seat for Sunday's local derby against France.

"Win as much as you can is at the base of every professional sport and we will try to win as many games as possible," revealed a very upbeat Brunel recently. "We want to get to the point where beating a team such as France would be a normal possibility for us. We are full of confidence."

To do so, Italy must find consistency first. The number of unforced errors has rapidly decreased during the last twelve months but a lack of accuracy in the execution of the game plan is still jeopardising the Azzurri's otherwise notable performances - just look at the narrow win against Tonga and the first 40 minutes that cost them an historic win against the Wallabies.

Brunel demands attention and precision and the players must deliver from the kick-off to the final whistle. Under the influences of the French coach, Italy have turned a very defensive-oriented mentality into a more intriguing approach: they are still trying to get the most out of their scrum and lineout but they have finally started to use possession to threaten opposition, ball in hand, and that is undoubtedly very good news for Six Nations fans.

What the Azzurri are still missing is the tactical kicking game. The ability to explore the unattended areas of the field with the boot is an area the Italian fly-halves and fullbacks need to improve the most. It would give some different options to their back line and also empower their huge pack.

Brunel is building a new winning mentality into a group of players who are well used to each other and that is becoming evident game after game. He has discovered some promising talents and a few other young players will be thrown into the arena in the next few weeks. He wants his men to perform under pressure, keeping every opponent close from a score point-of-view until the end of the game and that is why Twickenham will be the biggest test of this year's Six Nations.

If Italy are able to fly back from London with a reasonable score (the last two visits ended 59-13 in 2011 and 36-11 in 2009) they will have moved another step forward in the right direction. In building a new credibility on the international stage, they would be taking another huge step closer to their goal of making the 2015 World Cup quarter-finals.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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