Italy: The Year Ahead

The 2020 Guinness Six Nations is certainly going to be one of new faces – with France, Wales and Ireland having already settled on new coaches for the campaign and now Italy following suit.

The 2020 Guinness Six Nations is certainly going to be one of new faces – with France, Wales and Ireland having already settled on new coaches for the campaign and now Italy following suit.

Yes, there’s been huge news at base camp Azzurri this week with confirmation that Franco Smith will take charge of next year’s Guinness Six Nations campaign after being appointed as head coach on an interim basis.

Conor O’Shea left the role following the recent World Cup and former Benetton Rugby and Toyota Cheetahs coach Smith will take the reins heading into the 2020 Championship.

With Smith in temporary charge, the Italian Rugby Federation will continue their hunt for a long-term successor to O’Shea but for now, the South African gets a shot at Rugby’s Greatest Championship.

Smith, who enjoyed a 14-year professional playing career and won nine Springbok Test caps, knows the Italian game well having taken the reins at Benetton between 2007 and 2013 before leading the Cheetahs into the Guinness PRO14.

Any job at one of the world’s leading rugby nations comes with its challenges and the biggest change we will likely see over the next 12 months will be Smith himself, but what else can we expect?

The South African will be assisted by Giampiero De Carli (forwards) and Marius Goosen (backs), with Pete Atkinson and Giovanni Sanguin co-ordinating physical preparation.

The first challenge will be regrouping after a frustrating Rugby World Cup for Italy, who were defeated by South Africa but beat Namibia (47-22) and Canada (48-7) before the deciding group game against New Zealand was called off due to typhoon Hagibis.

Italy would have been underdogs against the All Blacks but there was plenty of frustration at the cancellation, as evidenced by Sergio Parisse’s words at the time, but this also perhaps presents a chance for the new squad to use disappointment to fuel their success in 2020.

The last Italian victory in the Championship was against Scotland in Edinburgh in February 2015, while at home the Azzurri have not won since March 2013, could change bring success?

Italy played some excellent rugby at the World Cup in Japan as shown by the fact that despite playing a game fewer, O’Shea guided the squad to 12 points, their best-ever tally.

Smith will have plenty to work with, 19 of the squad made their World Cup debuts in Japan and many are of an age where there are many years of development ahead of them.

Top of that list is full-back Matteo Minozzi, 23, now with Wasps and a man who fought back from serious injury to make the squad, a man nominated for Player of the Championship in 2018.

Minozzi showed plenty of good touches at the World Cup and is locked in at No.15, but there are plenty of bright talents elsewhere.

At fly-half Tommaso Allan can break the opposition defence, control the rhythm of the game, kick points and launch powerful clearing kicks.

He finished with 23 points in Japan and it was clear his work with then backs coach and former England fly-half Mike Catt had added greater depth to his game.

Jake Polledri put in three all-action performances on the flank to show that Italy’s back row will be in good hands when Parisse eventually announces his international retirement and Seb Negri will likely be joining him – at lock Federico Ruzza looks to be a man who can light up the Guinness Six Nations for years to come.

Not the easiest of starts, February 1 at the home of reigning Grand Slam champions Wales in Cardiff.

A week later and Round 2 will take Smith and his men to Paris to face France, Round 3 is at home to Gregor Townsend’s Scotland and then a trip to Dublin awaits.

The Azzurri will be plotting to finish with a flourish against England at the Stadio Olimpico on Saturday 14 March.

The FIR have said they will announce a permanent head coach by July 1 next year – Smith has the chance, and the personnel, to make a big impact on this decision.