Just as is the case with Ireland, group opponents Italy aren’t firing on all cylinders in the run-up to RWC11. Grand, we’ve lost four in a row, but sneaking a home win over Japan? Is that really any better?
The Japanese led 17-14 at half-time in Stadio Dino Manuzzi, and while the Azzuri quickly nipped the lead back at the start of the second half, they were only leading 28-24 until the 73rd minute … and this was a pack that had Parisse, Bergamasco, Bortolami, Zanni, Lo Cicero and Ghiraldini in harness. Granted, the backline was essentially a second string, but you would really expect Italy to be able to put Japan to the sword in a home test match.
Things weren’t that much brighter last week against Scotland, when a more or less full-strength Italian side went down 23-12 to a Scottish team that didn’t include Chris Patterson, Sean Lamont, Ross Ford, Richie Gray or Rory Lawson – essentially, Andy Robinson put out the other half of the Scottish squad that snuck past an entirely second-string Irish side in the last few minutes of the game a month ago.
As ever, the Italians will struggle to score tries in this world cup. Even with the reigning Six Nations Player of the Tournament Alessandro Masi at fullback, Mirco Bergamasco on the wing and Clermont’s experienced Gonzalo Canale [the Argentina-born centre will be playing in his third world cup, and has accumulated 68 caps for Italy before his twenty-ninth birthday] in the centre, they’re just a bit toothless.
It’s tricky to put your finger exactly on why that is, but the typical response is to point out that they don’t have a truly international standard out-half. Luciano Orquera is the current incumbent, having been called in from a five-year period in the wilderness during this year’s Six Nations. He ran up the white flag in defense against England in Twickenham, and Chris Ashton correspondingly ran riot down his channel to the tune of four tries… it was a real ‘Welcome to Istanbul’ effort, one worthy of the Prince of Turnstiles, Xavier Garbajosa:
[from 1:18 onwards]
With that said, Mallett obviously gave him a real post-match shellacking in the dressing room, because he came out the next game and was putting his underfed-Victorian-chimney-sweep’s body on the line all day long. He was throwing himself on grenades the whole game, but the lad is absolutely tiny – a touch over 78kg [12st4lbs] dripping wet. It only takes one tackle where he’s not 100% spot on with his technique and brave as he is, he’s into the stands. He’s a canny little footballer, but when an opposition backrower can just stick out a hand and stop him without making any real commitment to the tackle, it sort of nullifies your breaking threat. Just ask Peter Stringer.
If Orquera is a crafty undersized pick-pocket, their pack goes the other way – physical, brutish and bludgeoning. The likes of Fabio Ongaro [77 caps], Andrea ‘Who Wears Short-Shorts?’ Lo Cicero [88 caps], Sal Perugini [80 caps] and Martin Castrogiovanni [78 caps] are incredibly experienced front-rowers, the northern hemisphere equivalent of the Pumas’ frontline bajadita of Roncero/Ledesma/Scelzo.
The experience doesn’t end there: 85-times capped Marco Bortolami is included in the second-row, along with 53-times capped Carlo del Fava and South African-born lampers Quintin Geldenhuys and Corniel van Zyl. There’s good size in the ear-taped department, with three of the four [Borto being the odd one out] stretching the tape measure over the two metre mark.
The familiar names of Alessandro Zanni, Mauro Bergamasco and the great Sergio Parisse are together again in the backrow. They form a very well-balanced unit: the lineout prowess of Zanni, the pace and bustle of Bergamasco and the remarkable footballing and physical abilities of Parisse. Again, they have huge experience: Mauro has run up 85 caps, despite missing most of the season due to injury, the twenty-seven year old Zanni has got 53 caps, and Parisse – who turns 28 during the world cup – has 79. Derbyshire and Barbieri are very much in the background compared to these lads, and it’s a bit of a surprise not to see Josh Sole included, as he can cover both second-row and backrow. He missed a fair bit of rugby during the second half of last season due to an ankle injury, but it’s still a big call from Mallett not to include him.
Looking down through the members of that pack, all the games they’ve played together and all the experience that they have, and then adding a couple of potent strike runners like Mirco Bergamasco and Sandro Masi to the mix, and Italy look like a very useful outfit. However, they’re a team that struggles away from home – you just have to look at the corresponding fixtures over two years of the Six Nations: At home, they lose narrowly or win games: their points difference [PD] in their home matches in 2011 was -10, in their away matches -59; in 2010, their PD in home games was -1, and in away matches it was -67. Obviously it’s not a like-for-like comparison, seeing that every team will play three away games one year and two away games the next, but it still tells a tale.
Over the two years, there was:
- a 16 point swing between the Irish results;
- a 41 point swing between the English results;
- a 15 point swing between the Welsh results;
- a 27 point swing between the French results; and
- a 17 point swing between the Scottish results
Averaging that out, that’s a 20 point swing in difference between home and away form. Furthermore, they did better every time at home than they had done away; every time.
Normally you’d expect a team with as much experience as the Italians have, and a proven, distinguished coach to be a real contender at the world cup, but I have to say that their weak form in the run-ups and their dodgy form away from home doesn’t inspire confidence. Still, you could level exactly the same accusations at Ireland.
Props: M Castrogiovanni (Leicester), L Cittadini (Treviso), A Lo Cicero (Racing-Metro),S Perugini (Aironi)
Hookers: L Ghiraldini (Treviso), F Ongaro (Aironi), T D’Apice (Roma)
Second-rows: M Bortolami (Aironi), C Del Fava (Aironi), Q Geldenhuys (Aironi), C Van Zyl (Treviso)
Backrow: R Barbieri (Treviso), Mauro Bergamasco (Stade Francais), P Derbyshire (Treviso), S Parisse (Stade Francais), A Zanni (Treviso)
Scrum-halves: F Semenzato (Treviso), E Gori (Treviso), P Canavosio (Aironi)
Out-halves: L Orquera (Brive), R Bocchino (Aironi),
Centres: G Canale (Clermont), G Garcia (Treviso), M Pratichetti (Aironi)
Wings: Mirco Bergamasco (Racing-Metro), G Toniolatti (Aironi), A Sgarbi (Treviso), T Benvenuti (Treviso)
Fullbacks: A Masi (Racing-Metro), L McLean (Treviso)