Analysis: Work to do for Italy after tough autumn

Abraham Steyn 3/11/2018
On paper, the November Test series was always likely to be a tough examination of Conor O’Shea’s Italy side as they collided with three of the top six in the world rankings.

On paper, the November Test series was always likely to be a tough examination of Conor O’Shea’s Italy side as they collided with three of the top six in the world rankings.

And so it proved as the Azzurri were comprehensively beaten by Grand Slam Six Nations champions Ireland, World champions New Zealand and Australia in three of their four matches.

The saving grace came with a 28-17 victory against Georgia, while the scores in their other three Autumn International Test defeats probably didn’t do Italy justice.

A Jordan Larmour hat-trick paved the way for a comfortable victory for Ireland in Chicago, but Italy only trailed 14-7 at the break following an impressive first-half display at Soldier Field.

O’Shea’s troops bounced back in impressive fashion the following weekend, though, running in four tries as they proved too good for Georgia with a 28-17 win in Florence.

It was then a case of what might have been when they hosted the Wallabies at Stadio Euganeo in Padua, with the tourists eventually emerging with a hard-fought 26-7 triumph.

That only told part of the story as the Azzurri had not one, but two tries disallowed before Australia built up a 14-0 first-half lead that the hosts were unable to claw back.

Last but not least, was a daunting encounter with a New Zealand side hurting from their defeat to Ireland the weekend before – and the World champions were in ruthless form.

The All Backs ran in ten tries at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome in a convincing 66-3 win as Jordie Barrett helped himself to four and Damian McKenzie bagged a hat-trick.

All in all, the Autumn Internationals will be regarded as a mixed bag by O’Shea, who has admitted his side still has some way to go to reach the levels of the very best in world rugby.

Stand-out players

No one impressed more for the Azzurri during November than Abraham Steyn, with the South African-born flanker continuing his upward trajectory in the No.8 shirt.

In the absence of captain Sergio Parisse, the 26-year-old Benetton star rose to the occasion to fill the considerable void left behind by Italy’s talisman during the Autumn Internationals.

His ball carrying and defensive prowess was utilised by Italy regularly throughout the November series as he provided a solid anchor for O’Shea’s side.

Parisse is expected to be back for the Six Nations, but Steyn can play across the back row and will add more strength in depth for the upcoming Championship campaign.

Meanwhile, Jake Polledri continued his excellent form from the 2018 Six Nations, during which he made his international debut, playing three of the four matches in November.

The powerful back-rower coped admirably with the relentless attack of New Zealand in the final Test, pitching in with 14 tackles – more than any other player on the pitch.

Sebastian Negri was another who starred for the Azzurri in difficult circumstances, having started every game for Italy during the 2018 Six Nations, proving especially useful at the set piece.

Breakthrough stars

Johan Meyer made his Test debut for Italy against Ireland at Soldier Field and never looked back, going from strength to strength as put his case forward for Six Nations selection.

He was rock solid in defence and comfortable at the set piece, while his work rate was phenomenal whenever he was on the pitch – he amassed 23 tackles against Ireland.

With such a wealth of back-row options to choose from, O’Shea started him from the bench in Italy’s other three outings, but he always made an impact when he was chucked into the fray.

The slightly more experienced Mattia Bellini also showed plenty of promising signs in attack, scoring Italy’s only try against Australia, but the 24-year-old winger was forced off with an injury.

It was later confirmed that he dislocated his shoulder and he is due to be sidelined for fourth months after undergoing surgery – keeping him out of the 2019 Six Nations campaign.

What they said

Speaking after the defeat to New Zealand, Italy head coach O’Shea insisted his side are moving in the right direction and would re-group ahead of the Six Nations Championship.

“We’re competitive people, we know we can beat the teams around us – when you come up to this level you know what you have to do,” said O’Shea.

“[The defeat to the All Black] was completely different to Australia where we created many opportunities.

“When I saw Ireland last week I saw 20 years of hard work. Of people who did the right things and made the right decisions.

“They’ve done this all their lives in New Zealand. They’re better than us. I’m unbelievably proud of these guys and the work we’re doing.

“We’ll dust ourselves down and get ready for Scotland [in the Six Nations].”