How Italian rugby is preparing for 2022 Guinness Six Nations.
The recent appointment of Kieran Crowley as the head coach of the Italian rugby team was a boost of confidence for the national side.
The former New Zealand international replaced South African Franco Smith who still remains involved in Italian rugby, as the head of high performance. Crowley, who took up his new role last May, had previously coached Canada and spent the last five seasons at Italian club Benetton.
Italy is hoping to reverse its fortunes after six consecutive bottom-placed finishes in the championship. The 2020 Guinness Six Nations for Italy kicked off at the Stadio Olimpico where the Azzurri faced a challenging opening against France.
Unfortunately for the home side, the inspired Les Bleus secured a 50-10 win, with scrum-half Antoine Dupont setting up three of those tries. A consolation try from Luca Sperandio and good cooperation from Stephen Varney and Paolo Garbisi were the main takers for home-siders.
A second trip to England to face the defending champions started with a surprising Monty Ioane advance in three minutes. However, the English were able to prevail against the Italians with a 41-18 final score despite an additional visitor try by Tommaso Allan.
In round 3 against the Irish, Smith’s side went down 48-10 in Rome before losing 48-7 to Wales at the Stadio Olimpico. This disappointing campaign closed with a fifth defeat in Edinburgh where the Scots led a 52-10 onslaught despite an early morale-boosting Luca Bigi try.
Italy's new coach Crowley was part of the 1987 World Cup-winning squad for New Zealand. He is looking to capitalise on the new generation of talent at his disposal. Crowley has spent over half a decade in the country learning and studying the rugby culture and seems to be the right person to lead the Azzurri to glory.
Crowley’s Italy record
His first task was among the toughest he could bargain for. With Italy’s Crowley hosting his once-upon-a-time fellow New Zealanders, at the Stadio Olimpico, his team was overcome 47-9 in favour of the All Blacks. Unlike other encounters, the Italians offered worthy opposition as three penalties from Paolo Garbisi kept them in.
They trailed 21-9 by the restart and only succumbed to the All Black pressure in the final quarter when they suffered a late try blitz. A later match with Argentina resulted in a 37-16 loss. Nevertheless, Italy closed 2021 with a 17-10 win over Uruguay - their first test win in two years.
Prolific Italian talent
Several players have recorded an impressive form and exceptional sportsmanship in 2021. Paolo Garbisi remains the focal point in attacking the Italian side. At only 21 years old, he has started on all five of Italy’s championship games this year.
Many have pointed out his partnership with scrum-half Stephen Varney as an exciting axis to further build upon. Varney might not match up to Garbisi this year but he has proved he has plenty of tricks up his sleeve.
23-year-old Michele Lamaro took over the captaincy from hooker Luca Bigi in the Autumn Nations Series and equally seems to have flourished in his new role. Pierre Bruno and Epalahame Faiva both deserve a mention after crossing the try line in their debuts.
Six Nations déjà vu
Since joining the competition in 2000, Italy's track record at the Six Nations has been underwhelming thus far. This has elicited questions as to whether they should be competing in the tournament. Italy has yet to win a rugby match since their 22-19 away win over Scotland in 2015 round 3.
They have lost every other game since - a losing streak of over 30 matches. Italy's 2021 game did not go well, with losses to France, England, Ireland and Wales.
France has not clinched a Six Nations title since 2010. Fabien Galthié’s squad will head in 2022 with wins over Argentina and Georgia at the Autumn Nations Series, even beating New Zealand 40-25. France clinched the second spot at this year’s Six Nations after losing narrowly to Scotland and England.
The Englishmen led by Eddie Jones are expected to perform well in 2022 after an unbeaten autumn campaign where they won against Tonga, Australia and South Africa.
Wales are this year’s defending champions but they trail behind several rivals. According to sports odds comparison website Oddschecker, they are considered the fourth-placed favourites behind France, England and Ireland.
Wayne Pivac’s team closed November with a narrow win over Australia and has its eyes fully set on the 2022 Six Nations with the upcoming match against Ireland in Dublin. Autumn was a difficult season for the Welsh, especially after their early defeats against New Zealand and South Africa followed by wins against Fiji and Australia.
2022 for the Italians
2022 prospects are a mix of expectation and familiarity. The previous years have delivered numerous false starts but many foresee a resurgent squad during the Crowley era. This is after several positives can be drawn from the Autumn Nations Series campaign.
Crowley is credited with ending Italy’s losing streak with his third game at the helm. Not to mention the game with the All Blacks that showcased the impressive talent at his disposal.
Going forward, the Azzurri will set their main focus on consistency. The 2022 Guinness Six Nations will be a great starting point as they look to secure their first win in the championship. Next year’s tournament will be one of the most contested of the season. Everyone is looking forward to the teams' performance on its trips to France, Wales and Ireland.
Azzurre women’s team
The Italian women’s rugby team continued to build impressive showings as per their performance at the Women’s Six Nations fuelling their run into 2022. The Azzurre started their opener with a loss to England despite mounting an impressive display in Parma. A week later the team registered a 41-20 victory over Scotland clinching the second spot in pool A. In Dublin they also lost to Ireland 25-5.
However, with Italy hosting the World Cup qualifier this time, Italy’s wins over Scotland and Spain guaranteed a top-two finish in the qualifier. Scotland's 20-18 win over Ireland sealed the deal, even earning them a spot in the repechage. With the qualification, the Azzurre will work for a 2021 New Year’s win at their away opener with France.
By Russel Ayugi
This article was published in the January 2022 edition of Wanted in Rome magazine. For details about Italy team and the 2022 Six Nations see the Federazione Italiana Rugby (FIR) website.
Cover image: Renato Giammaroli and Finlay Christie in action during the Autumn Nations Series 2021 test match between Italy and the All Blacks in Rome on 6 November. Photo Marco Iacobucci Epp / Shutterstock.com.