OLD GUARD READY TO RUM­BLE

NZ Rugby World Tournament Guide - - CON­TENTS -

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.

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