Long known for their prowess up front, Italy have found themselves effectively neutered in a string of recent games in which referees have penalised them at scrum-time and the air of exasperation has not been difficult to ascertain. The Italians conceded 19 penalties against France in their tournament opener. Six of those came in scrums and five of them on their own put-in with head coach Jacques Brunel claiming afterwards that his team simply didn’t understand what it was that referee Craig Joubert wanted.
The South African was especially hard on experienced prop Martin Castrogiovanni who was ultimately replaced and dropped for the following game against Canada with Brunel stating that the official’s interpretation had effectively decided that first game.
“We have had the same scrum for the last 10 years and one week you look good and the next everything goes against you,” said Castogiovanni subsequently. “I know the ref is always right, but sometimes it is good to know what we need to do.”
Brunel also made the point after the French defeat that Italy had been consistently penalised in their warm-up games, most noticeably against the Scots in Edinburgh, and the ultimate effect of all this was still apparent when they took on Canada last Saturday.
The Canadians played their own, clever part in reducing the influence of their opponents’ abilities up front by hooking the ball out the back as soon as possible, but Rizzo suggested that falling foul of the law so often in recent times had played a large part as well.
“We played Canada as favourites, but in the scrum we were a little bit afraid of being penalised by the referee after what happened against France so we were not one 100% what we had to do. We need to take this from our mind and just work on what we can against Ireland.”
The Irish scrum has rarely been regarded as one of the most feared in rugby, but the current unit has been solid of late regardless of the personnel and Zebre prop Dario Chistolini has seen enough of Irish packs to know the test facing the Azzurri this Sunday.
“Playing in the PRO12 I have come up against the Irish boys a lot and they have a very, very good scrummaging pack, especially very under-rated hookers like in Rory Best who is a great scrummer. Then you have Healy and Ross who uses all his experience and more to back that up on the bench.” Like Rizzo, Chistolini spoke of the need to acknowledge the picture being painted for the referee at the scrum while also stressing the importance of not “going away from our strengths as a strong scrummaging side”.
It’s a fine balance for a team that has continued to display an infuriating inconsistency, not just from match to match, but during the same 80 minutes as well. Yet Rizzo believes they approach the Ireland game from a nothing-to-lose perspective that will stand to them.
Doubts persist over the fitness and availability of captain Sergio Parisse, vice-skipper Leonardo Ghiraldini and even Casstrogiovanni who is reportedly carrying a minor injury, but Italy believe they are capable of so much more than they have offered thus far.
“Let’s put it this way,” said Chistolini, “this is the most important game any of these players will have ever played. If we manage to get a positive result this week then we will stand to make the quarter-finals, which is something that has never happened in Italian rugby.”