OLD GUARD READY TO RUMBLE
Italy will be targeting the game against France as their big chance to make history.
The Italians have been going backwards in the last 18 months but they have an experienced group of veterans that is eager to make one last, big impression writes MICHEL ESTIENNE.
THEY ARRIVE IN ENGLAND AS..?
The team’s morale could not have been worse. The Italians have stepped down in 2014. With no less than 10 defeats and just one win they went through one of their bleakest seasons. The last two seasons have been particularly difficult for the Azzuri, as their French coach Jacques Brunel explains: “Italy has fallen behind recently. We lacked confidence and positive results. However, a World Cup is a special competition, with a preparation and parameters that are different from other big events.”
WHAT TYPE OF FOOTBALL WILL THEY PLAY?
The Azzuri have tried to implement a more expansive game, but they have failed to reap the benefits of these efforts. Under South African Nick Mallett’s rule, Italy’s game was based on power, pragmatism and a strong set piece. Those were indeed the traditional strengths of the team. With Brunel, the style changed. While still playing on their usual strengths, the Italians have been asked to go wide, looking for spaces.
ARE THEY SUITABLY MOTIVATED?
In terms of motivation, several factors can play an important part in the team’s World cup performances. Renowned for their fiery character, the Italians can indeed be very vocal in their opinions. Several players in the team are strong minded and have a lot of influence on their teammates: Mauro Bergamasco, Martin Castrogovanni, Marco Bortolami, Leonardo Ghiraldini and Andrea Masi. And when the president of the Union, Alfredo Gavazzi, is too open and vocal in his criticism of the team like he was last April, those players do not hesitate to lash back publicly and on social networks. At the time, Italy had slumped to 15th in the world rankings, and Gavazzi had stated that he was, “fed up with the pensioners”. Over a dozen Azzuri players followed their captain Sergio Parisse’s example and asked on twitter for more respect from their president. One can easily imagine such atmosphere is not the best to start a World Cup campaign.
One positive is that those same players are all well into their 30s. Parisse (32), Bergamasco (36), Castrogovanni (33), Bortolami (35) and Masi (34) will be playing their last World Cup. They will certainly be eager to put their mark in history, and take their team to the quarterfinals for the first time ever.
DO THEY HAVE ENOUGH PERSONNEL DEPTH?
However seasoned and cunning a manager Brunel is, his efforts are frustrated by a fundamental problem: the scarcity of players able to play at international level. The crucial first five-eighth position is a perfect example of Brunel’s problems. Since Diego Dominguez’s retirement in 2003, the team has yet to find a world class player to fill the position. Clearly, it is the greatest weakness of the team. Historically, Italian clubs have always recruited
foreign players for number 10: Naas Botha (South Africa), Michael Lynagh (Australia) and Dominguez (Argentina).
CAN THEY COPE WITH THE PRESSURE?
One of Italy’s problems is their lack of consistency. They usually play a good first half, but tend to collapse almost entirely during the second. They seem to be unable to maintain the same level of aggressiveness. Worse yet, they get slower and slower to redistribute themselves in defence. During their last game in the 2015 Six Nations, Italy collapsed and let Wales score no less than 47 points in the second half. It was a historic defeat at home in Rome.
WHERE ARE THEIR WEAKNESSES?
First, the team is aging. The four centurions of the team (Parisse, Castrogiovanni, Bortolami and Bergamasco) are also well into their 30s. Mauro Bergamasco could become, with Brian Lima, the only other player to have participated in five World cups. They may be experienced, but when do experience and age become more of a hindrance than an asset? This old age might explain their recurring difficulties in defence.
Since the highly talented Dominguez left, 17 players have been tried as first-five. Brunel has not escaped from this fly-half curse. He gave a chance to the Rotorua-born Kelly Haimona. The former Bay of Plenty pivot was playing in the Italian second division when Brunel picked him last November. He wasn’t in the least convincing during this season’s Six Nations. The heaviest Italian number 10 ever (107kg) is certainly not the most creative. What could be expected of a player who never got higher than the ITM level back in New Zealand?
WHAT ARE THEIR KEY STRENGTHS?
Under Brunel, the Azzuri have tried to be more adventurous. But leopards do not change their spots. Italy remain extremely effective at the basics. They have with Ghiraldini, Parisse and Zanni – good operators at the breakdowns. Castrogiovanni, Matias Aguero, and Alberto de Marchi are among the most renowned props in Europe. The running mauls are one of the favourite weapons of the Italians.
WHAT POTENTIAL PROBLEMS COULD THEY INCUR?
The Azzuri are highly dependent on their super-player Parisse. As he is the only world-class player, his performance will positively or negatively impact on the team’s performance. If he was to be out of form – or worse, injured – the whole team could fall apart.
DO THEY HAVE A STRONG ENOUGH LEADERSHIP TEAM?
Italy have got a pool of seven or eight highly experienced, seasoned players. Brunel explains that: “Apart from those experienced such as Parisse, Castrogiovanni, Bortolami, Bergamasco, Geldenhuys, Masi, McLean or Ghiraldini, we have been trying to integrate young players for the last couple of years. They are 22, 23 years old. Our goal is for them to gain experience, to be just as ambitious as their older teammates.”
Brunel is certainly counting on Parisse to be a role model for the rookies and inspire them.
SCRUM MACHINE: Martin Castrogiovanni loves the set piece.
DAD’S ARMY: Italy’s senior players say
they still have it.