Foolish to write off Italy, warns powerful Parisse

Ireland have not been the only ones to have changed immeasurably since that March day in Rome two years ago.

Foolish to write off Italy, warns powerful Parisse

Sergio Parisse and his Italian team have also been through an awful lot since they delivered the fatal blow to Declan Kidney’s tenure as Irish head coach by handing his side a first Six Nations defeat to the Azzurri.

That 22-15 debacle for Ireland was a watershed moment, when the national side hit rock bottom in a flurry of injuries and yellow cards, prompting the IRFU to change tack and usher in Joe Schmidt as the man to take things on and turn it around.

For Parisse, however, that championship season has been as good as it gets. The win over Ireland followed a victory over France, also at Stadio Olimpico but it has been downhill ever since.

Italy suffered a Six Nations whitewash last year and then endured a miserable summer tour to Fiji, Samoa and Japan, losing each of their three Tests on the Pacific Rim. Yet the feeling, shared by the inspirational captain and learned head coach Jacques Brunel, is that Italy are on the rebound, their spirits revived by a November Test window at home that brought a welcome victory over the Samoans followed by encouraging performances in defeat against Argentina and the Springboks.

No.8 Parisse (31), is certainly heading into his 12th RBS 6 Nations campaign, an eighth as captain, in optimistic mood.

“The summer tour was definitely not good with three matches and three losses, especially after a really, really difficult Six Nations,” Parisse said, “but in terms of confidence we got a win against Samoa in November and played two good matches against Argentina and South Africa.

“We really improved in terms of our defence and and we want to keep it the same this time. We want to play more rugby and be more dangerous in attack as well and this year we’re going to have a lot of opportunity to show that.

“Every single match is going to be tough, especially the first one because we’re going to have to play probably the best team at the moment.”

Brunel, the 61-year-old Frenchman and former Perpignan coach who is preparing for his final Six Nations before stepping down after the World Cup, has admitted his disappointment that the Italians have not kicked on as much as he would have liked in the four years since he succeeded Nick Mallett as head coach but he is now seeing the green shoots of recovery after a traumatic last 12 months.

“When I took up the post (in 2011) I said I’d like, in three or four years, for us to be able to say we could be challenging to win the tournament. Right at this moment, I’m not able to say that,” Brunel said but added: “In the last two training camps I’ve been encouraged by the team’s condition, ambition and their commitment.

“In November, we worked on our defence because we had taken a step back in that department and if we manage to find the right balance and quality, we’ll be a match for anybody.”

The chances of history repeating and Ireland submitting to Italian power for a second time in Rome this weekend appear slim given the opposite direction the two sides’ fortunes have taken since March 2013 and Parisse did little to suggest otherwise when he labelled Schmidt’s Ireland as “probably the best team in the northern hemisphere.

“Everyone saw how Ireland played in November,” the Stade Francais star said. “They are a very complete team, they have good backs, good forwards, they are very dynamic especially in terms of defence. They are good at the turnover, at building mauls and getting in front of teams — they are a difficult team to play against.

“I know they have some injuries but they will arrive with a very competitive side.”

Ireland also exacted revenge in 2014 for that 22-15 defeat in the Italian capital a year previously, hammering them 46-7 in Dublin. Although Parisse was forced to miss that game through injury he bears the pain of that defeat and its implications as much as his team-mates.

“As Italians, we are not at the same level as Ireland. We beat them two years ago but last year they won by 40 points in Dublin. It is important for us to be competitive and see if we are really, really far from them or if we are able to play a full match at our best and beat a team like Ireland. It is important because we are going to play them in a few months’ time at the World Cup.

“It is important for us mentally to know we can beat these teams. If we play 100 games against Ireland we would probably lose 98 so we have a small opportunity to beat them but we have to play every match with this ambition. We have to try to be competitive against every team we play at the Six Nations.”

Like every team in the championship, there is one eye on the months ahead and for Italy, France and Ireland, pitted together in the same World Cup pool come September there is added relevance to gaining maximum momentum from this coming Six Nations campaign.

“We definitely have to do better this year,” Parisse said. “We’re playing three matches at home which is going to be crucial to getting good results and building confidence in the team in time for the World Cup. We have shown we can be competitive and we can win like when we beat very good teams in 2013. But last year we played a poor Six Nations and that is the difference between a great team and a team who can get a great result, but do not have the same consistency.

“That is the target this year — to have more consistency, especially in the three matches we play at home.”

Italy remain outsiders for the title, their efforts at building on the successes of 2013 not built on at home by a weakening of their two franchise clubs Treviso and Zebre. Yet Parisse is sounding a defiant note.

“There’s a lot of talk about the quality of our opponents, but we’re a quality side too and we have top level players,” he said.

“I’m confident, because after six difficult months we showed in November that we’re back to our old selves. I’m disappointed about the defeats to South Africa and Argentina, in which we lacked efficiency, but we had the right spirit. They’ve written us off, but that’s fine. It will be great to surprise everybody.”

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