It would be wrong to make big statements about Italy at the start of this Six Nations.
The nation does not await, and quite probably it never will do, because rugby does not enjoy that sort of status in the country as a whole.
Nevertheless this is probably the biggest moment for the sport in Italy for the past 10 years, and the biggest opportunity for a coach to make his mark since the time of Pierre Berbizier.
In his off-screen interviews with the Italian media Conor O’Shea has sought to tie expectations to the way Italy play in this tournament rather than results. That’s not simply about realism, it also reflects the tasks ahead.
Twelve months ago, when the former New Zealand full-back Kieran Crowley took over as head coach at Benetton Treviso, he defined the missing ‘x-factor’ in Italian rugby as the “lack of explosiveness”.
The words O’Shea always emphasises are “consistency and continuity” and hence the need to “change coaching, both physical and mental”.
Those might sound like different things, but they point to the same weakness. Italian sides both at club and national level have usually failed to maintain the necessary levels of energy and focus during campaigns, and also over the 80 minutes. And they’ve often been found wanting during the final quarter of matches when that extra explosiveness is most required.
Sometimes they have simply lacked the quality on the bench, and that may help explain some of Conor O’Shea’s choices for this opening match against Wales. It is a bold selection, with a new half-back pairing of Edoardo Gori and the less-experienced Carlo Canna.
There is also a new back row, who have not played together before, although the surprise choice – Abraham Steyn – like Gori is from Treviso, as is the man he replaces, Francesco Minto, who is on the bench.
Minto is one of several players who Italian fans believe has been held in reserve for the second half, though Steyn has been an improving performer for his club, who have only won twice in the Guinness PRO12 but come tantalising close in other high-scoring games.
Another held in reserve is Michele Campagnaro, even though the Exeter player scored three tries against a (weakened) Wasps at the weekend, and has six in his last three matches. Campagnaro has had a frustrating time at Exeter, partly because of injuries, but he does have that explosive quality that Italy have lacked and is clearly an in-form player.
The thought among the fans is that O’Shea wants to use him later on as an impact player once the game becomes more stretched. Their fear is that the coach has a game-plan that involves a kicking contest early on and that Italy will have trouble coming back if they are trailing significantly.
“Perhaps the aim is to allow Wales to beat us up,” said one, “so then the Irish will be reassured and send out their second team.”
Italian rugby fans have their own brand of gallows humour on their rugby forums - “let’s hope Wales don’t run up bonus points in the first half” – was another comment when the team was announced.
“Evidently O’Shea trusts the boys so much that he’s possibly convinced that in the second half we’ll still be in the game to play it and bring on the likes of Campagnaro and Minto. But be honest, we’re not New Zealand who would be allowed certain luxuries … and I’ve never seen them do this!” But for the time being they are ready to put a lot of trust in the coach, in contrast to some of his predecessors.
They appreciate that O’Shea is prepared to select on merit and drop some big names to the bench, the biggest being the hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini. His replacement is Ornel Gega, a rarity in international rugby since he comes from Albania, although he’s lived in Italy since the age of nine.
At club level, Gega has experienced both heavy defeat and encouraging victory against Welsh opposition, and he’s played a big part in an improving pack that has been Treviso’s strength this season. This is only his second season in PRO12 and his selection ahead of Ghiraldini is a big vote of confidence, although Ghiraldini could well replace him if Italy need experienced heads late on.
As ever, experience will be provided by Sergio Parisse, who like his coach is already thinking ahead to the whole campaign rather than this opening match. The players he says are extremely enthusiastic but the challenge is managing that enthusiasm over five games “and in particular the first two against Wales and then against Ireland.”
“If we begin to go down physically, that’s when the mistakes become multiplied and we above all pay dearly for that.”
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