After a promising set of performances in the 2018 Six Nations, Italy embarked on their summer tour to Japan hoping to turn the corner.
A chastening first Test defeat in Oita was a tough blow for Conor O’Shea and his side to take but they bounced back in impressive style in the second Test to end their season on a high.
And with a tough set of autumn fixtures to come, the Azzurri have much food for thought. THE NOBLE ART Defence has been an issue for Italy, they shipped 27 tries across their five games in the 2018 Championship.
And the problem reared its head again in the first Test in Oita against the Brave Blossoms as they went down to a 34-17 defeat.
Jamie Joseph’s Japan ran in four tries to claim a morale-boosting win for them and leave O’Shea licking his wounds.
But they fronted up impressively in the second Test, holding on for a 25-22 victory that saw their defence much improved.
However, seven tries conceded across two games will need attention this autumn and heading into a season that culminates in a Rugby World Cup.
The last-gasp try scored by Japan full-back Kotaro Matsushima made the final moments of the second Test more nervy than they needed to be. FRESH FACES With some senior figures, not least skipper Sergio Parisse, absent from this tour – the gauntlet was lain down to younger men to step up.
O’Shea blooded two new debutants across the two Tests, both in the front row as Giosue Zilocchi and Cherif Traore made their bows.
Tiziano Pasquali scored a try in the first Test as well in only his eighth Test match.
And the scrum held up well across the two Tests, but the lineout had its problems against a well-drilled Japanese outift.
Jake Polledri – who caught the eye in his debut in the 2018 Championship against Scotland – came off the bench in the first Test but scored a try and impressed from the start in the second to stake a real claim for a back-row berth next season. RETURN OF MICHELE Injuries have ruined Michele Campagnaro’s last two seasons but the centre returned for the Azzurri in Japan.
He started both Tests in midfield and with Luca Morisi also back in the fold – although the latter did not break into a matchday 23 – O’Shea is creating enviable squad depth in his backline.
Tommaso Benvenuti was one of three try scorers in the second Test win in Kobe and with Matteo Minozzi shifting between full-back and wing alongside Jayden Hayward – they are not lacking for versatility either. LEADER LEO Leonardo Ghiraldini took over the captaincy in the absence of Parisse and led by example.
A number of younger faces also stood up, including fly-half Tommy Allan who kicked well from the tee and played a pivotal role in the second Test win.
“It was our last game of the season so we’re really happy to finish like that,” said the captain after the second Test.
“We know exactly where we want to go — our target at the World Cup is to qualify for the quarter-finals, but we have the Six Nations before that and that’s our focus.” AUTUMN OF CHANGE On paper, Italy’s autumn fixtures could hardly be much tougher.
They kick off with a trip to Soldier Field to take on Ireland before welcoming Australia to Padua and New Zealand to Rome.
They do also in the second of their four games take on Georgia in Florence in what is a must-win game for them heading into the 2019 Championship.
But with added depth and some big names to return, O’Shea and his coaching staff have plenty of reasons for optimism.