Under the stewardship of Franco Smith for the first time, Italy’s 2020 Guinness Six Nations campaign saw a wealth of young talent introduced to the main stage as part of a long-term vision of success.
Though ultimately bottom of the ranks come the campaign’s October conclusion, the Azzurri showed frequent glimmers of hope that both the immediate and long-term future are bright.
Having pushed France and given England a brief scare in the 2020 Championship, an improved Italy side showed competitive spirit en route to a sixth-place finish in the Autumn Nations Cup.
With the likes of Paolo Garbisi and Niccolo Cannone growing in stature with every passing playing minute, there is real hope that Smith can build a force to be reckoned with among the Championship’s biggest hitters.
For now, some victories in 2021 would represent real progress for an opening squad with an average age of just 24 and that contains only four players with more than 30 caps. An opening clash against Les Bleus will certainly test their mettle.
Still just 29 years of age and with 32 Test caps to his name, hooker Luca Bigi’s leadership qualities and prowess in the front row are likely to be crucial to his team’s success this year.
Having made the first of 12 Guinness Six Nations appearances back in 2018, the Zebre star was given big boots to fill as the replacement for outgoing leader and legend Sergio Parisse ahead of the 2020 Championship.
But Bigi started each of Italy’s matches last year, before featuring heavily for his country during the inaugural Autumn Nations Cup campaign, as Italy offered glimpses that they are heading in the right direction.
In line to have a big impact again this year, the ferocious hooker will undoubtedly be eager to lead his team to what would be a morale-boosting win against an incredibly talented France in Round 1, before a tough-looking trip to defending champions England.
After taking over the head coach role from Conor O’Shea on an interim basis in late 2019, Smith was handed the reins on a permanent basis midway through last year’s interrupted Championship.
The 48-year-old had pedigree in Italian rugby having previously played and coached there domestically, and he has been quick to promote youth in the senior side in a bid to produce long-term glory.
Smith names youthful Italy side to face France
Although yet to taste victory under his tutelage, there appears real hope that Smith’s faith in the likes of 20-year-old fly-half Garbisi will eventually come good, although he will also be targeting victories in this year’s Championship.
HOW THEY GOT ON LAST YEAR
A visit to 2019 Grand Slam winners Wales was always a daunting task for Italy in Smith’s first Guinness Six Nations match in charge, and a 42-0 reverse did indeed spell the worst possible start to last year’s campaign.
Matteo Minozzi, Federico Zani and Mattia Bellini all crossed in a 35-22 defeat away to France a week later, before Italy found themselves unable to get onto the scoreboard in a 17-0 home loss to Scotland in Round 3.
In the first Guinness Six Nations game to be staged following the break in play due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Edoardo Padovani and Garbisi tries weren’t enough to prevent a 50-17 defeat to Ireland in Dublin.
And Italy rounded off their series with a 34-5 loss at home to England, whose victory earned them a first Championship title since 2017.
Italy clearly have a plan going forwards and all signs point towards this year’s Guinness Six Nations representing the next stepping stone on their journey of continued improvement.
Smith: 2021 Championship a fresh start for Italy
Strong older hands such as Bigi and Carlo Canna should provide the ideal leadership and experience qualities in a squad that possesses genuine excitement and potential.
With the benefit of three home games this year, Smith’s fearless charges might just fancy themselves to ruffle a few feathers, and most importantly get some victories on the board.
Italy v France, Rome, February 6, Kick-off: 15:15 ITA, 14:15 UK
England v Italy, London, February 13, Kick-off: 15:15 ITA, 14:15 UK
Italy v Ireland, Rome, February 27, Kick-off: 15:15 ITA, 14:15 UK
Italy v Wales, Rome, March 13, Kick-off: 15:15 ITA, 14:15 UK
Scotland v Italy, Edinburgh, March 20, Kick-off: 15:15 ITA, 14:15 UK