A Championship with a lot of promise ultimately ended without a win for Italy but the Azzurri were still able to show that last year’s success in Wales was no flash in the pan.
While they fell short in their bid for a win, they caused every team they faced problems, particularly with their attack.
Star backs Paolo Garbisi and Ange Capuozzo both enjoyed some stellar moments, despite missing time through injury, but it was the Italian forwards who really stepped up.
There will understandably be frustration at missing the chance of victory against both France and Scotland when the Azzurri were pressing for a winning try as the final whistle approached, falling just short in both games.
Between those two matches, Italy paid for poor first halves against England and Wales, and gave Ireland a scare in Rome.
And regardless of the lack of victories, they certainly demonstrated that they are a team on the rise.
Star performer – Sebastian Negri
Had Ange Capuozzo played all five games, he would have been a strong contender for this spot, but injury cut short his campaign after three matches.
Federico Ruzza is another who shone, with his 39 lineout takes a full 21 more than any other player.
In the end though, for consistency of performance, it is impossible to look past Sebastian Negri, the hard-hitting flanker who was an absolute colossus throughout.
Italy’s top carrier, he was also relentless in defence and set the tone in the physical battle, while teammate Lorenzo Cannone was the only forward to make more metres over the course of the Championship.
A word also for loosehead prop Danilo Fischetti, who continues to build his reputation as a force in defence and at the breakdown, while looking after the basics at the set-piece.
Breakthrough player – Giacomo Nicotera
With Gianmarco Lucchesi ruled out through injury, a lot of responsibility fell onto the shoulders of hooker Giacomo Nicotera, who stepped into the breach.
Only England were more accurate at lineout time, while Nicotera was also Italy’s top tackler in the Championship with teammate Danilo Fischetti one of just four men to beat his tally of dominant tackles.
Teammate Lorenzo Cannone may have already graduated out of the breakthrough category, but already looks a top-class No.8, while Tommaso Menoncello is a massive prospect. The only question is whether his future lies on the wing or in the midfield.
Add in Edoardo Iachizzi, who took his chances well in the second row, and there is no question that Italy have some building blocks in place on which to build.
Despite the lack of victories, the fact that Italy had the youngest team in the Championship bodes well for the future, particularly when you consider that the combination of Paolo Garbisi and Ange Capuozzo played just one match together.
With the two of them fit, Italy have a high-class playmaker and one of the most dangerous X-factors in the game, the sort of combination that could make any team click.
Add in another promising year from the Under-20s, who finished in the top half for the first time ever and were the only team to score a try bonus point in every match, and there is plenty of reason for optimism.
The immediate future may be tricky, a World Cup pool with hosts France and perennial favourites New Zealand means that it will be tough for the Azzurri to reach the quarter-finals for the first time.
But wins over Wales and Australia in 2022 will ensure no team takes Italy lightly, and they will look to spring a surprise in France before opening the 2024 Championship at home to England in what should be a fascinating fixture.
In terms of quality of performance, the home games against France and Ireland were probably the top two displays, with Stephen Varney’s try against the latter an absolute scorcher, opening up the best defence in the Championship with ease.
Capuozzo is also a human highlights reel, and the way he stood up Grégory Alldritt on his way to the try-line against France was worth watching over and over.
He added in more devastating breaks against England and Ireland, and when back fit, will be the first player anyone looks out for on the Azzurri teamsheet.
It has to be the attack, which was able to trouble even the tightest defences, particularly once Paolo Garbisi returned to the starting line-up, his range of passing opening up the options for his outside backs.
This campaign marked the most points scored (89) since 2018, while the nine tries was last bettered in 2019, but more importantly, with the exception of the trip to England, Italy were in every game in the final quarter.
There were some common trends throughout, notably the poor exits that allowed the opposition possession in dangerous territory that led directly to points.
That was costly against France, with two of the four tries from Les Bleus coming from coughed up ball, while Italy’s defence was also caught out early by Ireland in Round 3.
The maul defence suffered at Twickenham, costing them the chance to trouble England, while Italy will look back on losses to Wales and especially Scotland as chances missed, the latter game seeing them on the Scottish line while trailing by five with the clock nearly in the red, knowing a try would likely secure a win.
With a lot of excitement surrounding Italy coming into the Championship, this campaign was a reminder of just how tough it is to win Test matches in this competition.
However it also opened up people’s eyes about how far Italy have come. No one found life easy against them and they will head into next year’s Championship with higher expectations than previous years.
With the likes of Garbisi, Capuozzo, Menoncello, not to mention the returning Leonardo Marin, Italy have the foundations for an extremely dangerous backline, with Capuozzo the oldest of that quartet at just 23.