Italy are on an upward curve in the 2019 Guinness Six Nations and Azzurri legend Andrea Masi believes scrum-half Tito Tebaldi holds the key to success.
After defeats to Scotland and Wales in the opening two rounds of the Championship, Conor O’Shea’s men welcomed Ireland to Rome last time out and gave the reigning Grand Slam winners all they could handle.
Italy led 16-12 at the break and although Joe Schmidt’s troops eventually emerged as 26-16 victors, it was a spirited display by the hosts that gives them a strong foundation to build on for the final two rounds.
Even without skipper and emotional leader Sergio Parisse, Italy undoubtedly produced their best performance of this year’s Championship and Masi – who won 95 caps over a 16-year international career – was particularly impressed by Tebaldi.
The scrum-half ended with 71 metres from six carries, had one line-break and one tackle-break, and made 12 tackles without missing one – as well as stealing the ball from opposite number Conor Murray to set up an Azzurri try.
“It was a fantastic performance by Italy against Ireland,” said Masi. “I thought the score was a bit unfair because our players showed real quality throughout the game.
“Tebaldi was back from injury and he put in an outstanding performance. He brings speed, his kicking accuracy was great, and he is very effective in the defensive breakdown. He’s a great contester for the ball.
“He is a fantastic leader with a lot of international experience. He has played in Wales and in England for Harlequins, so he knows how to compete in high-level games.
“They put in an incredible effort – both the players and the staff and they really do deserve some credit, and the fans deserve it too.”
Masi holds the distinction of being the only Italian to be named Player of the Championship – a feat he achieved in 2011.
That year, the Azzurri memorably beat France in Rome – a fixture set for Round Five in the 2019 Guinness Six Nations after O’Shea’s troops head to Twickenham to take on England this weekend.
Having been named as part of the 26-man party bound for London this week, No.8 Parisse, who set the record for most Championship appearances when playing in Round One last month, is in line to return to the fold after missing the Ireland game with concussion.
And while Parisse is regarded as arguably the greatest Italian player of all-time, Masi was impressed at how his compatriots fared without him in Round Three.
“I think the players knew they needed to step up without Sergio,” added Masi. “I thought [Leonardo] Ghiraldini was outstanding in his place [as captain].
“We are a really professional team and all of our best players are playing at the highest level week in, week out.
“I don’t think they rely on Sergio but they know he is a key player for us. He is a strong character and a leader, and everyone expects something special for him.
“I was really impressed with our defence, not only against Ireland but also in our first two games.
“I thought our defensive work was certainly the positive we could take from the earlier rounds. We showed our commitment, speed and physicality against the top teams.
“It would be massive for the confidence of the players to get a win now.”