Italian rugby has gone from strength to strength in the past year – and that has been reflected by Conor O’Shea’s 31-man training squad ahead of the 2019 Guinness Six Nations.
While the Azzurri finished bottom of the Championship last year, there were plenty of positives to take from the performances of players such as Sebastian Negri and Tommaso Allan.
They have continued to build on those foundations with Benetton and Zebre both showing signs of the progress being made by Italian rugby in the Guinness Pro14.
That has been backed up by O’Shea’s selections for the training camp at the Giulio Onesti Olympic Committee Preparation Centre in Rome later this month.
Here’s a more in-depth look at some of the key talking points from the Italy training squad announcement as the 2019 Guinness Six Nations draws ever nearer.
Difficult decisions for O’Shea
The Italian head coach admitted he was faced with some “difficult selection decisions” and it’s not hard to see why when you consider the task he had before him to trim down his squad.
With last year’s star man Matteo Minozzi out injured, O’Shea needed to find a player to replace his attacking threat from fullback and he had plenty of options to choose from.
Luca Sperandio may only have a couple of appearances off the bench under his belt in the Six Nations, but he has been in fine form on the wing for Benetton in recent months.
The 22-year-old showed his potential with a brilliant hat-trick for Benetton against Edinburgh, while teammates Jayden Hayward and Angelo Esposito are also options for O’Shea.
In total, 18 players from Benetton have made the squad, underlining the impact Kieran Crowley’s side – currently third in Conference A of the Guinness Pro14 – have had on the national team.
Blend of youth and experience
O’Shea has largely kept faith with the players that he picked for the Autumn Internationals in November last year when they faced Ireland, Georgia, Australia and New Zealand.
While the Tests didn’t go quite to plan against some tough opposition, the Azzurri defeated Georgia, pushed Australia close and held their own against Ireland in the first half in Chicago.
Just as was the case then, O’Shea has continued to put his faith in a mix of youth and experience in his latest training squad announcement ahead of the 2019 Guinness Six Nations.
Former Bath Rugby flanker David Sisi is the only uncapped player to make the cut, with the Zebre man joined by a further nine players from the other Italian Guinness Pro14 side.
There are eight players with less than ten caps in the squad in total, including Zebre’s Jimmy Tuivaiti, Federico Ruzza and Marco Barbini – with the latter last playing in the 2015 Championship.
Allan provides creative spark
One of the key men for Italy if they are to kick off the 2019 Guinness Six Nations with a victory against Scotland in Edinburgh will be fly-half Tommaso Allan.
The 25-year-old scored a brace against the same side in the final game of last year’s Championship, finishing the game with an impressive 22-point haul as Scotland won 29-27 in Rome.
But a decision will have to be made by O’Shea on who he is paired with in the half-backs, with Guglielmo Palazzani and Tito Tebaldi both having valid claims for the scrum-half shirt.
Meanwhile, Carlo Canna and Ian McKinley enjoyed game time during the November Test series and will provide strong back-up options at fly-half if required to do a job.
The Italian midfield is also packed with talent and with the likes of Giulio Bisegni, Michele Campagnaro and Luca Morisi to choose from O’Shea will be rubbing his hands with glee.
While it is easy to focus on Italy’s backline, the pack will be key to their 2019 Guinness Six Nations ambitions and could well see them spring a few surprises next month.
Out of the two Italian sides in the Guinness Pro14, Benetton are more forward-dominated, and it shows in O’Shea’s selection – ten of the 17 selected are from the Treviso club.
Simone Ferrari, Tiziano Pasquali, Cherif Traore and Luca Bigi have all been called up to the training squad, as have Dean Budd, Braam Steyn and Alessandro Zanni.
Negri showed his potential in last year’s Championship and is sure play a big role once again in 2019, while the experience of Sergio Parisse and Leonardo Ghiraldini adds even more firepower.
The challenge is for Italy to turn potential into wins – as O’Shea himself admits: “We can be more than just competitive, but we need to work even harder now to ensure the big moments in these matches go our way.”
Image credits: FIR