Italy welcome France to the Stadio Olimpico on Saturday looking to end the Guinness Six Nations on a high.
There have been plenty of positives for the Azzurri in this year’s Championship with impressive stretches in every one of their four games, although they are still hunting a first victory.
In Rome especially, Conor O’Shea’s men have looked comfortable – narrowly going down 26-15 to Wales in Round Two and leading Ireland at half-time in Round Three before falling to a 26-16 defeat.
O’Shea has made five changes from the team that lost to England last weekend as Marco Zanon debuts at outside centre and flanker Jake Polledri, lock David Sisi, tighthead Tiziano Pasquali and hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini all start in the pack.
England’s powerful backs crashed through Italy at Twickenham en route to a 57-14 victory and O’Shea admits the Azzurri will be looking to cut out some of the defensive mistakes he felt they made in that match.
The Irishman knows France, who currently sit one place above them in the 2019 Guinness Six Nations table, will pose a tough test in Rome but is confident his troops are headed in the right direction.
“France are a very strong team, like all the teams we face in the Guinness Six Nations every year,” said O’Shea.
“Our journey to the high level is continuing and I am sure that the road is the right one. In France the pressure is different, but we have the same desire to win and we want to finish the Championship in the best way. The focus will be on ourselves.
“We did not do a great job in defence against England and we conceded too many points. We also did good things and missed two important chances that might not have changed the result of the game but would have led to a different analysis at the end of the match.
“During the week, the errors committed were analysed and we will be trying not to repeat them against France.”
While four changes were made in the pack, it is O’Shea’s lone alteration in the backs that has taken the headlines – 21-year-old centre Zanon earning a maiden Test appearance for Italy.
He has impressed for Benetton Rugby this season and starting in midfield alongside club teammate Luca Morisi, O’Shea is excited about what he can offer – even against powerful French centres Wesley Fofana and Mathieu Bastareaud.
“He [Zanon] is a boy with great skills and will have a great opportunity to show what he can do,” explained O’Shea.
“It’s quiet at the moment but it will be a great challenge for him against Fofana and Bastareaud.
“He is playing in the centres with [Luca] Morisi, with whom he is used to playing together alongside at Benetton, so it will be a great day for him and his family.”
While Zanon is a rookie in terms of international experience, Italy also have plenty of experience to call upon – with 137-cap Sergio Parisse and 103-cap Leonardo Ghiraldini starting, while 110-cap Alessandro Zanni is on the bench.
And O’Shea insists the old dogs are still providing the perfect example for the rest of the squad, both in training and out on the pitch.
“They always have the same energy every week,” added O’Shea. “It is difficult sometimes to have so much energy after a game like last Saturday, but then I see Sergio, Alessandro and Leonardo fighting more and more in training.
“I think that a great performance on Saturday would be a fair recognition for the effort they put in and for the whole group.”