2021 ushered in the dawn of a new era for Italy.
After a Guinness Six Nations campaign that provided a familiar sense of deja vu, the appointment of Kieran Crowley as head coach prompted widespread optimism for the Azzurri.
Taking over from Franco Smith – now the head of high performance in Italy – the World Cup-winning All Black’s arrival came on the back of a sixth-place Championship finish.
But having worked wonders with Benetton during his five-year stint, leading them to a historic first play-off appearance in the Guinness PRO14, expectations were high for Crowley.
And while their Autumn Nations Series got off to a tricky start, the Azzurri ended their year on a high by getting back to winning ways with a morale-boosting victory over Uruguay.
GUINNESS SIX NATIONS
Following five consecutive bottom finishes in the Championship, Italy started the 2020 Guinness Six Nations with a challenging opening test against France at the Stadio Olimpico.
Unfortunately for the home side, they came up against an inspired Antoine Dupont as the scrum-half set up three tries and scored another to secure a 50-10 win for Les Bleus in Rome.
Luca Sperandio grabbed a consolation try while Stephen Varney and Paolo Garbisi’s half-back partnership continued to flourish, but it was not enough against the ruthless visitors.
A daunting trip to Twickenham to face the defending champions was up next and when Monty Ioane crossed inside three minutes, a shock upset appeared to be on the cards.
England ultimately proved too strong, though, as Eddie Jones’ men prevailed 41-18 despite another try from Tommaso Allan and a couple of penalties from Garbisi.
It was a similar story against Ireland in Round 3, with Smith’s side going down 48-10 in Rome before losing 48-7 to eventual 2021 champions Wales at the Stadio Olimpico again.
A disappointing campaign ended with a fifth Championship defeat in Edinburgh, where Scotland romped to a 52-10 success after an early Luca Bigi try had given the visitors hope.
AUTUMN NATIONS SERIES
Crowley was announced as Smith’s successor in the role in May of this year, having previously coached Canada and spent the last five seasons at Italian club Benetton.
Part of New Zealand’s 1987 World Cup-winning squad, Crowley spoke glowingly about the influx of a new generation of Italian talent at his disposal following his appointment.
And having spent half a decade in the country learning and understanding its rugby culture, he appeared to be the perfect man for the job of rejuvenating the Azzurri on the world stage.
His first assignment was one of the toughest he could have wished for, however, with Italy hosting the country of Crowley’s birth, New Zealand, at the Stadio Olimpico in the Autumn.
But while the end result – a 47-9 win for the All Blacks – suggested little had changed from the Championship, Italy were more than a match for the visitors for 60 minutes.
Three Paolo Garbisi penalties kept the hosts in it, and they only trailed 21-9 shortly after the restart before New Zealand pulled clear with a late try blitz in the final quarter.
There were fewer positives to take from a 37-16 defeat to Argentina, but Italy bounced back in their final game of 2021 to beat Uruguay 17-10 for their first Test win in two years.
Results have often belied the amount of talent within the Italy ranks and that was certainly the case again in 2021 as several players impressed in the Azzurri jersey.
Paolo Garbisi picked up where he left off in 2020, establishing himself as the attacking focal point of this new-look Italy side as he remained a constant threat even in defeat.
The 21-year-old started all five of Italy’s Championship games in 2021 and his partnership with scrum-half Stephen Varney gives Crowley an exciting axis on which to build from.
Varney has not quite had the same influence as Garbisi this year, but Gloucester’s 20-year-old has plenty of tricks up his sleeve and has shown he has potential to burn.
Elsewhere, 23-year-old Michele Lamaro was entrusted to lead Italy forward into the Autumn Nations Series by Crowley, taking over the captaincy from hooker Luca Bigi.
Lamaro seemed to flourish with the new responsibility, putting in a series of impressive performances from the back row, and he will be crucial to Italy’s 2022 Championship campaign.
Pierre Bruno and Epalahame Faiva also deserve a shout out, having both crossed the whitewash for Italy on their debuts in the Autumn Nations Series win over Uruguay.
All in all, the future looks very bright for Italy.
While there have been several false dawns over the last few years, the Crowley era already feels different following an Autumn Nations Series campaign with plenty of positives.
The New Zealander ended Italy’s winless run in just his third game in charge while their performance against the All Blacks at the beginning of November showed the talent at his disposal.
Consistency is now the key for the Azzurri going forward, starting with the 2022 Guinness Six Nations and the quest to secure their first win in the Championship since 2015.
Next year’s Championship already looks set to be one of the most fiercely contested in its history, so claiming that victory will be far from a walk in the park for Crowley’s men.
Trips to France, Ireland and Wales only make that task even harder but there is no doubt that under the new regime, this Italy team has the potential to cause an upset or two.
Only time will tell whether they can turn that promise into results.