Hawkeye Sidekick

Italy Rugby – Project Progression

An opening weekend where Italian Rugby head coach Conor O’Shea realized the progression still required for his squad to make to become competitive. A game which showcased Italy’s work rate and determination but also a game which exposed naive defensive organization. With a trip to Dublin imminent, it is time to run the rule on Italy. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects.

Project Progression

The title of this blog speaks volumes to where Italian Rugby is at the moment. This is a season where Conor O’Shea has overseen the initial stages of restructuring the professional game in the country.

Michael Bradley was appointed to the Zebre Rugby head coaching position; the mantra to identify and nurture young talent while Benetton Rugby would become the marquee Italian side in Guinness Pro 14 and European Cup action.

Something had to give in terms of restructuring the game in the country. The performance of Benetton Rugby and Zebre Rugby in past seasons were incredibly underwhelming. No structure or game plan to realistically challenge opposition, bonus point try defeats ensued at a rate of knots. No platform for which the international side to latch onto.

Things needed to change and the decisions this season have started to see improved performances for both Italian club sides in Guinness Pro 14 action. Zebre Rugby for instance have shocked Ulster Rugby and Ospreys already this season. Benetton Rugby have upset the might of the Toyota Cheetahs. The initial signs of a renaissance in Italian Rugby but it is only the start of the journey and Italian supporters will need to be patient.

What Italian side should Ireland expect to face?

On the basis of their opening round tourney performance, Italy have significant improvement to make on all facets of play. The ease in which England were able to create significant line breaks out wide in the opening period is an ominous sign. The speed of pass and precise running lines were all too much for the Italian midfield and back three who repeatedly made the wrong defensive call, creating further space for the likes of Anthony Watson out wide to score.

I am not sure what Conor O’Shea and management can do to remedy this fatal flaw in realistically six days preparation. The England attacking lines were good but the manner in how Italy were ripped apart either out wide or from runners hitting down the middle will have alerted Joe Schmidt and the Ireland back line of potential weakness. Jordan Larmour’s pace hitting the line could have devastating consequences for the Italians.

The scrum set piece struggled at times and Ireland will look to turn the screw in this facet of play. 66% scrum success speaks volumes and the lack of distinct squad depth in the prop positions means it is definite advantage to Ireland this weekend.

The one pleasing point for Italy in the opening round of the tournament was how well the line-out fared. 100% success rate in the set piece with Ghiraldini hitting the likes of Zanni, Budd and Parisse with excellent throws. This also an excellent platform to be built in the first three quarters of the contest, allowing the back three to showcase their ability outside. Two tries scored and a couple that went a begging.

Benvenuti and Bellini tries also saw Italy suck the England back three in and excellent passes out wide to create the decisive line breaks for the score. It will be something that Ireland will need to work on during training this week, kept their defensive structure.

The ruck area was an area where Italy competed well for a hour but where then blown away in the final quarter. Sam Simmonds exposed some genuine weakness in Italy ability in the maul as well as bursting through the channel. The defensive side of play was naive at best and the back three for all their good work with ball in hand looked extremely vulnerable in basic defensive situations.

The penalty count was an aspect of play that Conor O’Shea felt last season that Italy were harshly officiated again. However, the statistics from last weekend made more similar reading. Twelve penalties conceded during the contest; a mixed bag in terms of discipline with offside the predominant angst of the French officiating crew. Thirteen turnovers is simply not good enough at international level too.

What changes do Ireland expect see from the Italian side?

It is a fine balancing act required from Conor O’Shea this weekend. There will be attrition from the England loss but given the distinct lack of depth in the front five, changes here might be minimal. The prop situation looks particularly worrying from an Italian standpoint. The second row partnership of Zanni and Budd were solid in the line out and O’Shea will look for a repeat performance to gain some foothold in the contest.

The back row could see a change in personnel. Mbanda is a marauding back row whose work rate and ball carrying may just be what Italy require this weekend to supplement the quality of Parisse. The half-back pairing make see a change at scrum half with Gori potentially getting the nod from Violi. Allan will continue at ten given his kicking and game management performance.

The back line had plenty of defensive issues and O’Shea could potentially look to draft the likes of Hayward and Canna to the three quarters and back field. The personnel coming from the bench is a mixed bag and if Ireland can provide a secure platform, a bonus point try win is on the cards. As mentioned, this tournament for Italy will be measured on progression; how competitive will they be come the end of the tournament? A long road lies ahead for the Azzuri.