Are we seeing the beginning of a new dawn for Italy following their success in the final game of the 2022 Guinness Six Nations Championship?
After the 2021 campaign provided a familiar sense of déjà vu, hopes were high for an improvement following the appointment of Kieran Crowley and some positive flashes in the Autumn Nations Series.
And although it was a Championship full of ups and downs, the Azzurri can take a lot from their five matches and build towards the future.
TALE OF THE CHAMPIONSHIP
Italy began their Championship with the toughest task of all, taking on the eventual Grand Slam-winners France on their own patch.
Despite having never won in Paris previously they gave Les Bleus a real battle from the first whistle, and took the lead when wing Tommaso Menoncello gathered a kick to finish in the corner, in doing so becoming the youngest scorer in the Championship for 55 years.
Although France struck back with two first-half tries to gain control and eventually ran out 37-10 winners, it was an early sign that Crowley’s team posed a threat to every side, regardless of historic results.
Round 2 proved to be a bump in the road, when they ran into a top-gear England in Rome, who scored five tries without reply.
There was disappointment with the number of penalties conceded by the hosts, but even in this 33-0 defeat, the Azzurri still showed glimpses of their ability in attack, with their fluid pack seeing plenty of the ball.
After the first fallow week, their next game showed the incredible character of Crowley’s side in difficult circumstances in Dublin as they lost to Championship-chasing Ireland.
A Hame Faiva red card midway through the first-half effectively ended the game as a contest, with the replacement hooker’s dismissal prompting uncontested scrums.
Unfortunately, Italy later finished the game with only 12 after Braam Steyn’s yellow card, Ireland running in nine tries in total for a comprehensive win.
But even in tough circumstances the visitors showed real heart, particularly captain Michele Lamaro.
Round 4 saw Scotland head to Rome, and although the contest failed to bring Italy their first win of the Championship, the hosts began to convert much of their attacking promise into points.
Gregor Townsend’s team crossed first, but an excellent counter from Callum Braley gave Italy a first try since the opening round.
Although their opponents hit back to take the lead, the game shifted when Ange Capuozzo was brought on for his Test debut.
The young full-back showed what a genuine prospect he is, finishing off two brilliantly constructed moves, stepping inside Kyle Steyn for the second with all the wisdom of an international veteran.
Three tries were the least the Azzuri deserved for a much-improved performance and despite a 33-22 final scoreline in favour of Scotland, it was a display to take huge confidence from.
And Italy saved the best until last.
Round 5 saw them take the game to Wayne Pivac’s Wales in Cardiff, with the boot of Paolo Garbisi giving them an advantage on the scoreboard.
Despite another strong performance, it looked as if they were destined to finish the Championship pointless again when Dewi Lake and Josh Adams went over for the home side to give them a 21-15 lead going into the closing stages.
However, another brilliant break from Capuozzo sent Edoardo Padovani in the clear, the 28-year-old diving over under the posts to give Garbisi a simple conversion to secure a dramatic win.
It was the minimum Italy deserved for showing both resilience and ability in abundance throughout the Championship.
They may have finished sixth in the table, as they did 12 months ago, but make no mistake this was a very different Italy to the one we saw in 2021 and the improved points total reflects that.
There were plenty of contenders for Italy’s top performer this time around – from captain Michele Lamaro to dangerous wing Monty Ioane.
In usual circumstances it will feel strange giving this title to a player who only featured in two of the five rounds, but Ange Capuozzo has to be considered the star man.
The 22-year-old is the latest exciting youngster to become part of the Italy set-up and head coach Crowley must be excited to have such a talent at his disposal.
He may only have been on the pitch for 115 minutes in total, but in that time Capuozzo either scored or created three of the five tries Italy scored in the Championship.
A straightforward choice. The unbridled joy of seeing players, staff and fans celebrate after Garbisi’s winning conversion against Wales in Round 5.
Italy’s first win in Rugby’s Greatest Championship since 2015 was rich reward for all the hard work undertaken in the last year.
The emotion on display showed everyone involved what it meant to the team and made it one of the moments to remember from this year.
Aside from Capuozzo’s meteoric rise, teenage wing Tommaso Menoncello was another big breakthrough for Italy.
He scored an excellent try in the opening round in Paris, living up to his promise as one of Italy’s talented new generation.
An injury suffered before the clash with Ireland was a cruel blow, ending his Championship prematurely, but also showed how vital he has already become to this team.
And with the Italy side having an excellent Six Nations Under-20s campaign over the last month, we can expect more players to breakthrough next time around.
The future for Italy looks even brighter now than it did at the back end of last year.
A combination of a Crowley’s coaching influence and some exciting talent breaking through to the starting XV has given Azzurri fans plenty to be pleased with going forward.
The 2022 Autumn Nations Series will be key to see if Italy can transfer the potential shown in the Guinness Six Nations to matches against some of the best teams from the southern hemisphere.
If they can do that anything will feel possible and the squad may be fulfilling their potential at just the right time 12 months ahead of the Rugby World Cup in France.
At this stage, you certainly wouldn’t put it beyond this crop to be the first to go beyond the pool stages at that tournament or push for a top-half finish in the 2023 Guinness Six Nations.