Ever since the Italians joined England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland and France in 2000 to make up the Six Nations Championship, all rugby fans have hoped Italy would eventually grow and become a real force in world rugby that could compete with the top table of nations.
Italy’s opening 34-20 win over Scotland offered hope, but unfortunately Italy has yet to become a consistently high performing side.
In 2001 and 2002, the Italians failed to record a single victory in the Six Nations, with their barren run only being broken by a 30-22 victory over Wales in 2003. Yet more misery followed with a disappointing World Cup in 2003, where Italy beat minnows Canada and Tonga, but lost quite easily to tier one sides New Zealand and Wales.
2004 saw Italy beat Scotland, 2005 another barren spell and 2006 a draw against Wales at the Millennium Stadium – the first time they had not lost away from Rome, followed by an away win at Murrayfield in 2007. Interest in rugby in Italy reached new heights when the Azzuri won their first consecutive games in the tournament, by beating Wales 23-20.
However, 2008 saw only one win against Scotland again, despite keeping scores close against all the other nations that year. 2009 saw Italy lose all their games yet again and 2010 they managed to outdo the Scots once more.
2011 was a special year for the Italians with a famous 22-21 victory over reigning Six Nations champions France.
2012 saw Italy beat Scotland again and 2013 they once more defeated France 23-18, but in 2014 they lost all their games and scraped an away victory against Scotland in 2015.
Scotland and Italy have spent most of the 21st century battling it out to avoid the Wooden Spoon, but one has to wonder why they are not winning games more regularly.
The Federazione Italiana Rugby (FIR), Italian rugby’s governing body, has made a number of changes in terms of coaching personnel to try and make Italy a greater force at the elite level of the game. Big name coaches like Nick Mallett, Pierre Berbizier and Jacques Brunel have all tried to their hand at the head coach role, and former All Black John Kirwan was given a shot as well, but all ultimately failed to ignite Italian rugby as a force in the global game.
One reason for this may be Italy’s lack of resources, but according to World Rugby, Italy has 82,143 registered players, which is more than Wales (73,444) and Scotland (49,305) and not far behind Ireland (96,880). This suggests Italy should have the player resources to complete with these nations on a regular basis.
Despite this, Italy has never tasted success at U-20s level and has finished five of its eight U-20s Six Nations Championships with the Wooden Spoon. It seems there is a dearth of quality coming through the junior ranks and the senior team is suffering as a result. This correlates with a growing number of ‘foreign-born’ players like Dries van Schalkwyk, Luke McLean, Kelly Haimona and Manoa Vosawai regularly playing for the Azzuri.
Moreover, the FIR has tried to improve the quality of player access for their coaching teams by the creation of two franchise sides in the form of ‘Zebre’ and ‘Benetton Rugby Treviso’ that compete in the former Celtic League (now Pro12) and the Champions Cup and Challenge Cup.
This has resulted in a shift away from Italy selecting foreign-based players, with the current squad containing only five non-Italy-based players.
Italy has also recruited Conor O’Shea, Harlequins’ Director of Rugby, who has overseen an overhaul of the Premiership club, with a veritable plethora of young English academy graduates brought into the senior squad.
It is O’Shea’s ability to spot and nurture young talent that has attracted the FIR to him, and it is hoped he will be able to improve the production line of talent in Italy that has struggled to develop Italy’s sizeable player base into genuine international talent.
As for 2016, Italy began with another brave effort against a woeful France in Paris, but it is time for them to stop being heroic nearly-men and start turning their efforts into consistent victories.
Paul Wassell, Pundit Arena
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