Three talking points as Italy prepare for November Tests
Our Italian rugby expert offers his thoughts on the Azzurri's autumn internationals against Samoa, Argentina and South Africa
Can Italian rugby find the boost it needs?
There isn’t much going right for Italian rugby these days. After the re-organisation of the Heineken Cup, the FIR lost the right to host the 2015 final at the San Siro, with Twickenham now hosting the Champions Cup final. Benetton Treviso, Italy’s premier Guinness PRO12 club, has been embroiled in political turmoil, has financial issues, and lost its best players to foreign clubs to become Europe’s whipping boys. It doesn’t get much better for the national team, without a win in 10 games after another embarrassing summer. Sergio Parisse, the much-respected Argentina-born No8, has rightfully been restored as captain and demanded a win at all costs in their opening autumn international against Samoa. The Stade Français man has made it abundantly clear what the mission is: just win, at all costs. That could be easier said than done. Samoa may be considered Italy’s weakest opposition in November before Argentina and South Africa, but they can’t be underestimated. If the Azzurri need a reminder, they need only look back to the summer when they lost 15-0 in Apia when their flaws were exposed on numerous occasions before Fiji and Japan added to a sour summer for coach Jacques Brunel. That forced the FIR to issue the dreaded vote of confidence in the head coach after the Japan disaster. Of course, Parisse and others were absent from that tour, but their return may not make much difference.
Were there any surprising squad selections?
Former Ospreys scrum-half Tito Tebaldi left the Welsh region earlier in the season and his demise sees him left out of Brunel’s 30-man squad. The head coach won’t select players not playing for their club – Tebaldi doesn’t even have a club. There may be no room for the unemployed in the Azzurri squad, but there is space for more overseas players to become Italian. Rotorua-born Zebre outside-half Kelly Haimona now qualifies for Italy after qualifying on residency and could be a welcome addition in an area that has been a problem in recent seasons, with competition from Argentine-Italian Luciano Orquera and Scottish-Italian Tommaso Allan. Samuela Vunisa, the strong Zebre Number 8, could also get a chance to show off his form for his PRO12 club on the international stage, while Treviso centre Simone Ragusi, a former Emerging Italy player and the third of the uncapped players, may also get a chance to show what he can do on the global stage in his first season with a PRO12 club, like Haimona, a former player in the Eccellenza, the top Italian domestic competition. Another who could have a chance is Guglielmo Palazzani – who debuted for Zebre as full-back last season, before switching to scrum-half, Improving fast under the tutelage of Brendon Leonard, but Treviso’s Ugo Gori will conduct the pack.
Can the Italian pack bounce back after a difficult summer?
November will be another difficult month for the Italian pack against brutal opposition from Samoa, Argentina and South Africa – with all three bringing powerful set-pieces. Brunel has chosen to overlook experienced players like Carlo Festuccia and Lorenzo Cittadini, who are regulars in the strong Wasps front row, and Michele Rizzo, recently recovered from an injury. Brunel, who will probably leave the Azzurri after next year’s Rugby World Cup, has gone with younger players, like Zebre hooker Andrea Manici and prop Dario Chistolini – a mix of youth and experience, trying to balance the group, replacing some players like Cardiff Blues Number 8 Manoa Vosawai with Vunisa – an unexpected call up, despite he is playing well for Zebre – and confirming others, like veteran prop Martin Castrogiovanni, who is approaching his final matches with the national team. It is difficult to see Castro, Quintin Geldenhuys, Marco Bortolami and maybe Parisse in the team after the RWC, but it is even more difficult to say who can actually replace them. But, as the skipper said, “firstly we have to focus on Samoa”. After struggling beyond imagination during the summer, we all expect the Italian forwards to make a point against the strong Pacific opponents. The Ascoli Piceno match will tell us a lot about the chances Italy have of a good Six Nations campaign next year, when they face the perennial challenge to avoid the wooden spoon with tough visits to BT Murrayfield and Twickenham to face Scotland and England, respectively.