In Focus: Italy

It has been a familiar story at Rugby World Cups for Italy.

It has been a familiar story at Rugby World Cups for Italy.

Eight times the Azzurri have arrived at the tournament full of hope and eight times they have exited at the Pool stages.

They will be hoping for cloud nine in 2019 and a knockout berth – but in a group that contains both New Zealand and South Africa, Conor O’Shea’s side have their work cut out.

The quarter-finals look a long way off, but with a fixture list that pits them against Namibia and Canada first up, they have a chance to build momentum before they face the big guns.

As ever, skipper Sergio Parisse will be the tentpole around whom Italy pitch their campaign.

The No.8 is appearing in his fifth and final World Cup – a feat only achieved twice before – and will be desperate to leave an indelible mark on the world stage.

To do that they will need to cause an upset and knock-out a former champion and, after five defeats from five in this year’s Guinness Six Nations, that might appear unlikely.

But there are real causes for optimism, not least in the domestic form of Benetton who form the backbone of O’Shea’s side and made history last season in making the PRO14 play-offs for the first time.

Throw in the fact that they have beaten South Africa in this World Cup cycle, back in 2016 in Florence, and the Azzurri could yet cause a stir.

They ran everyone except England very close during the 2019 Guinness Six Nations – and if they can unlock their best form when it counts they might still make history and reach the promised land.

In the Italy pack there are a number of key protagonists. In the front row Andrea Lovotti has been an ever-present under O’Shea and is a match in the tight for the best in the business.

While in the back row, Parisse will lead by word and deed with Seb Negri once considered his heir apparent.

But in fact it is flanker Jake Polledri who has really taken up the back-row mantle in his still young international career.

The England-born Gloucester flanker is a beast in both carry and tackle and has taken to the international game like a duck to water.

He will be relishing the chance to test himself against the best in the business like Sam Cane, Ardie Savea and Pieter-Steph Du Toit.

After breaking onto the international scene back in 2014, Allan has long battled with Carlo Canna for the keys to Italy’s No.10.

But since moving back home to Benetton, the 26-year-old has emerged as the main man.

His attacking prowess with ball in hand is beyond question, and with more than 50 caps to his name his experience makes him a key leader in the squad.

But if Italy are to test the big boys and shock the world, his goalkicking will need to be on point.

He has shown he has the nerve for the big occasion on the domestic front with Benetton, but consistency has evaded him and it cost them dear in the Guinness Six Nations.

Minozzi burst onto the scene in the 2018 Championship, scoring four tries in five games for the Azzurri and earning a nomination for Player of the Championship.

But a serious knee injury derailed his meteoric rise and it was only at the back end of last season that he got back onto the field for club side Zebre.

Since then however he has moved to Wasps and will want to show the world what they have been missing.

But the emergence of Jayden Hayward means Minozzi is probably more likely to get his chance on the left wing in Italy’s first choice XV.

Italy’s average caps for their 31-man squad stands at nearly 40 per man.

But statistics can be misleading with centurions like Parisse, Alessandro Zanni and Leonardo Ghiraldini making up for a number of newer faces who have not sampled this world stage before.

But fresher recruits like Federico Ruzza and Braam Steyn have proven they can not only cope but thrive at this level.

The Benetton spine to their forward pack has gone from strength to strength and in the set-piece they should be a match for almost anyone.

Their lineout was the best in the 2019 Championship – according to stats powered by AWS – and they will want that to continue if hooker Ghiraldini recovers from injury in time.

The scrum, for so long such a weapon, is still strong if not as dominant as yesteryear, while their attack – under the tutelage of Mike Catt – can click into gear in impressive style.

They stuck 85 points on Russia in a warm-up game for proof of that but it was the other three fixtures this summer that pinpointed where they need to improve.

Defence will be absolutely key, no team conceded more tries in the 2019 Championship than Italy and last month England, France and Ireland also had plenty of joy.

Their win over South Africa back in 2016 in Florence relied upon a backs to the wall defensive effort and they will need to summon that spirit again.

They held England try-less in the first half in Newcastle before falling away late on, and that has so often been the story of the last couple of years.

At their best, Italy are a match for anyone, but they need to maintain it for a full 80-minute performance to claim a serious scalp in the Far East.

O’Shea kept his training squad in Italy for much of their camp work in the build up to this tournament.

The hot and humid Italian summer has closely mirrored the conditions they are likely to face in Japan.

Fitness has been a serious focus for the side, they need both the power and the stamina to match the Boks and All Blacks for the full game.

In order to acclimatise, they arrived here earlier than most teams with a holding camp in Sugadaira and will need to hit the ground running with two games in the first six days of the tournament.

Over the course of the group stages, they will be based in Shizuoka and Fukuoka and it is there that they will concoct a plan to try and shock the world.

Italy will not get the chance to catch one of the big boys cold at this World Cup.

They do not face South Africa or New Zealand until the second half of the group stage but that does give them the chance to find form and fitness before their main course.

They start with two games inside four days, first against Namibia in Hanazono on the opening Sunday and then the following Thursday against Canada in Fukuoka.

After that they have over a week to rest and recover, hopefully with two wins already under their belt, to take on the might of Rassie Erasmus’ Springboks in Shizuoka.

If they come out of that game still in with a fighting chance of the knockout rounds they will have done well.

And the final fixture of the group is the biggest, against two-time defending world champions New Zealand in Toyota.

Make no mistake about it, Italy are in an uphill fight to end their Pool stage heartache this time around.

But with mastermind O’Shea pulling the strings, Parisse leading by example and Minozzi dancing out wide, they have a template for success.

Italy v Namibia, Hanazono, Sunday September 22, 06:45AM (all times GMT)

Italy v Canada, Fukuoka, Thursday September 26, 08:45AM

South Africa v Italy, Shizuoka, Friday October 4, 10:45AM

New Zealand v Italy, Toyota, Saturday October 12, 05:45AM