Rampaging winger Giovanbattista Venditti returns to the Azzurri in one of several changes to the initial Italian offering for the upcoming Six Nations. Head coach Jacques Brunel Has retained the overwhelming majority of his forward pack, but there are some noteworthy omissions, and interesting additions in an uncharacteristically surprising selection. Given the relative proximity of the World Cup it’s unusual to see such experimentation, and hints that Brunel still isn’t quite sure of his best backline, a symptom present in at least two other prominent tournament rivals, so at least he is in good company.
Venditti missed the November internationals with injury and though he certainly has his limitations, he brings much-needed punch to an otherwise lightweight back division. Of course there’s no promise that he’ll get an opportunity to express himself given Italy’s recent regression to prosaic rugby, but should the ball make it beyond the clutches of the first receiver he might prove a useful foil to Michele Campagnaro’s effective outside break. At the very least he should attract more attention from the defense than Luke McLean.
Who exactly will occupy the crucial outside half position remains to be seen. The smart money would be on incumbent Kelly Haimona, who performed beyond the expectations of many pundits in the fall, kicking well and using his 110kg to good effect when taking on the line. The problem is that Zebre prefer to field him at no12, and even then his club form, or lack thereof, has seen him relegated to the bench on a worryingly regular basis. Luciano Orquera has at long last been dumped, at least for now, and the first choice flyhalf in Parma is 21 year old Edoardo Padovani, who Brunel has not had the courage to select as of yet.
It could well be Tommaso Allan, just returned from injury at Perpignan, who gets the nod, despite his shabby treatment from the Azzurri coach since showing promise in last year’s Six Nations. Nobody is claiming the youngster to be a world beater just yet, but at least he has an upside and starts regularly for his club. Whether Allan or Haimona start, the jersey remains a problem that looks unlikely to be resolved before mid-September.
Four uncapped players have been included, though their involvement seems more likely to be training squad members than actual match day participation. Skilled footballer Simone Ragusi remains after failing to win a cap in November, and is joined by dynamic runner Michele Visentin in the outside backs. There is no place for Giulio Toniolatti or highly promising Angelo Esposito, though surely the door has not yet been closed on either for a return later this year.
Giulio Bisegni of Zebre is a new addition in the midfield, effectively putting to rest any suggestion of a recall for Mirco Bergamasco. Treviso fans might have been wondering why the more physical Enrico Bacchin was overlooked, but at this point there’s probably not much between them. It’s worth noting that regulars Gonzalo García, Gonzalo Canale, and Alberto Sgarbi were not considered due to injury, and versatile Tommaso Iannone is only just back from a couple months out himself.
A shot from the dark is scrumhalf Marcello Violi, a former national u20 standout and starter at Calvisano in the Italian Super 10, but yet to start a single match in the Pro 12 with barely 10 minutes of reserve action for Zebre to his name. Tito Tebaldi’s lack of action at Harlequins has certainly counted against him, while Treviso’s James Ambrosini, who has converted from flyhalf, has been overlooked. Padovani’s name might have come up again for the slot, given that he himself was initially seen as a scrumhalf before switching to flyhalf. Having a player of such versatility would seem particularly useful at the World Cup. Don’t be surprised if either appear as the tournament draws nearer.
There is far less room for debate amongst the forwards, with all the usual suspects present including a recall for Mauro Bergamasco, one of an incredible four test centurions in the squad. Fast approaching his 36th birthday, the legendary openside remains a fixture in the Zebre side and though he isn’t as spry as he once was he is probably in the squad on merit. Whether bustling no8 Manoa Vosawai, in form and featuring regularly for Cardiff Blues, might have been a better inclusion might be a reasonable question, though venerable captain Sergio Parisse remains the obvious choice and it appears Leicester’s Robert Barbieri is the preferred alternative.
Up front there is no room for either Michele Rizzo or Lorenzo Cittadini, with Matías Agüero included despite not having played since the 1st of November and Dario Chistolini persisted with as reserve tighthead. Many would argue that Cittadini is in better form than folk hero Martín Castrogiovanni, and they might be right, but ‘Castro’ always seems to perform at his best in his beloved Italian jumper. Given the attrition of the front row it seems likely that both of Rizzo and Cittadini will see action anyway before the tournament is done.
Though the squad has its peculiarities, the run-on team remains highly predictable both in selection and style of play. While they retain a competitive scrum, they lack dynamism and creativity. Should Brunel choose to remove the shackles there is potential for expansive rugby, but the unfamiliarity with such a game plan will have its inevitable consequences, none of which point to immediate success.
Italy are highly limited in their pool of players and with two-thirds of the squad coming from Treviso or Zebre, repeat occupants of the Pro 12 basement, the habit of winning could not be more foreign. The Azzurri failed to win a match in last year’s tournament and on paper it looks highly unlikely they will do so this time. Their best chances will come later on when they host both France and Wales in Rome, but both look well beyond their capabilities unless something magical happens. For poor Italian fans, it might be best to start dreaming of 2016 because this year looks set to be a dreary one.
02/07 – 14:30 GMT – vs Ireland – Stadio Olimpico, Rome
02/14 – 14:30 GMT – vs England – Twickenham, London
02/28 – 14:30 GMT – vs Scotland – Murrayfield, Edinburgh
03/15 – 15:00 GMT – vs France – Stadio Olimpico, Rome
03/21 – 12:30 GMT – vs Wales – Stadio Olimpico, Rome