Analysis: Italy on the right path after hard-fought campaign

It was a case of what might have been for Italy in the 2019 Guinness Six Nations as the Azzurri failed to pick up a win despite promising moments in four of the five games.

It was a case of what might have been for Italy in the 2019 Guinness Six Nations as the Azzurri failed to pick up a win despite promising moments in four of the five games.

Italy scored as many tries as champions Wales and were within a score in the second half of all three of their home games, but eventually could not find that elusive victory.

In what was potentially Sergio Parisse’s final Championship, there were reasons for optimism but ultimately frustration at the failure to get over the line.

The Championship opened with Sergio Parisse becoming the all-time appearance leader in the Guinness Six Nations, with his 66th cap in the Championship at BT Murrayfield.

The tactical kicking of Finn Russell caused the Azzurri problems, with Blair Kinghorn helping himself to a hat-trick, although a strong finish saw Italy run in three tries in a 33-20 defeat.

In Round Two it was Wales who came to the Stadio Olimpico, and following a strong defensive effort in the first half, Italy trailed 12-10 with less than half an hour to go.

Two tries in relatively quick succession from the Welsh sealed the result, but Edoardo Padovani’s late try ensured the teams managed two apiece on the day in the 26-15 loss.

After Wales, it was Ireland’s turn to come to Rome with the Tito Tebaldi-inspired Azzurri leading after 50 minutes. Eventually, as had been the case against Wales, the visitors were able to pull clear, eventually running out 26-16 victors.

A heavy defeat at Twickenham ensued, albeit with a couple of nice tries, before arguably the most frustrating encounter of the lot.

Against France in Rome, Italy enjoyed lots of territory and hammered away at the French line. Tebaldi crossed in the second half, but they could not take any of their other chances, with Les Bleus claiming a 24-15 success.

It has to be the final ten minutes of the first half against Ireland. Jacob Stockdale’s try from an error from kick-off had given Ireland a 12-3 lead and they looked to be in control at the Stadio Olimpico.

However Padovani crossed following Tommaso Allan’s fine wide pass, before Tebaldi pinched a ball off Conor Murray in the Italy 22 and at the end of a long counter-attack, Luca Morisi went over.

That, along with a penalty from Allan, gave Italy a 16-12 half-time lead with the atmosphere electric in Rome.

Keith Earls inspired a second-half turnaround, but it was a blistering salvo from the Azzurri that rocked the defending champions to end the first half.

We have to start with Tito Tebaldi, who made a huge impact after coming into the side in Round Three. The Benetton scrum-half was a late withdrawal at BT Murrayfield on the opening weekend, but finally made his first appearance in the Championship in five years against Ireland.

He immediately caught the eye with his ability to challenge at the breakdown like a back-row, counter-attack like a full-back, and snipe like the scrum-half he is. Now 31, Tebaldi really knew how to get Italy firing.

Two more Benetton players really shone for the Azzurri, Braam Steyn in the back row and Jayden Hayward at full-back.

The former played both flanker and No.8 and enjoyed arguably his finest campaign with Italy thanks to his lineout work and tenacity at the breakdown, not to mention a fine try against Wales.

Hayward, meanwhile, had the challenge of replacing Matteo Minozzi, so impressive a year ago. The 32-year-old was a rock at the back, regularly making big gains with his counter-attacking as well as being solid under the high ball.

A word also for Edoardo Padovani, a try-scorer in three successive matches and looking very at home on the wing.

Were it not for the fact that he is relatively new to the Test arena, Federico Ruzza would have been a candidate for the section above.

The versatile forward kicked off the campaign as an impact replacement, before settling into the starting line-up in the second row.

His offloading became one of Italy’s main weapons, and whether it was as a replacement or a starter, he was a dynamic presence around the park.

Other new faces included Dave Sisi and Marco Zanon, both of whom made their Test debuts during the campaign. The latter was so close to being the hero against France, denied one try by the post and a second by a last-gasp Damian Penaud tackle, but he looks like one for the future.

And a word also for replacement prop Cherif Traoré who added impetus every time he came off the bench.

Defeat to France in Round Five was a bitter blow for Italy, after they dominated large periods of the game.

Conor O’Shea’s frustration was evident after the game as he said: “It’s really difficult, really difficult for the guys.

“We’ll dust ourselves down and say that, a lot of the time in this Guinness Six Nations, we’ve given a huge amount.

“The competitiveness of this squad is going forward through all the things, but we should have won today. We had opportunity after opportunity after opportunity. We showed fight.

“We didn’t execute – that’s the bottom line. But if we continue to play with that level of intensity, it’ll come. At the moment, wow, it’s hard.”

Meanwhile Parisse was particularly emotional after that defeat seeing long-time teammate Leonardo Ghiraldini forced off with what turned out to be a torn anterior cruciate ligament.

Parisse said: “At the end of the game, seeing Leo on crutches was a really hard feeling. There have been so many sacrifices behind the scenes.

“I’m sorry for the tears but I’m really sorry for Leo because he is one of those players who I have spent so many years playing alongside.”

Attentions turn back to domestic matters, with Benetton’s end of season of particular interest.

The Treviso-based side are currently second in Conference B in the Guinness PRO14 and in the running for a first-ever play-off berth.

That would be huge for Italian rugby, and with the club unbeaten in 2019, it is very possible despite a tough run-in.

The World Cup then follows, with warm-up games against Ireland, Russia, France and England in the build-up to the competition.

The tournament itself begins for Italy with a clash against Namibia in Higashiosaka, followed by Canada and then southern hemisphere big guns South Africa and New Zealand.