Italy faces Wales, Ireland and France in the 2019 Six Nations championship in Rome.
The thrill of the Guinness Six Nations Championship returns in February, marking the 20th year since Italy joined the annual rugby union tournament.
This year’s competition will see three matches take place at Rome’s Stadio Olimpico as Italy embarks on another mission to establish itself among the European rugby union elite.
For all the six teams – England, France, Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales – the tournament has an added importance in 2019 as the World Cup in Japan is being held from September to November later this year.
Italy’s focus, however, is on continued development under impressive Irish coach Conor O’Shea. The 48-year-old, who made 35 appearances as full-back for Ireland during his playing career, has been the Azzurri's head coach since 2016, overseeing a difficult transition period which saw several players retire, including the experienced Bergamasco brothers, with the promotion of youth into the senior ranks.
The Italian side is on a losing run of 17 Six Nations matches in total – a string of results stretching back to before O’Shea took control. Having failed to make inroads 12 months ago despite a series of encouraging performances, O’Shea will want to see a marked improvement this time around.
The Italians will welcome the return of evergreen captain Sergio Parisse, who is the most capped player in Italian history, having represented his country 134 times. The Number 8 missed the entirety of the autumn internationals – including the defeats against Australia and New Zealand – due to a series of sport-related injuries.
Parisse, who plays club rugby at Stade Français Paris, has led by example in recent years with bombastic performances at the base of the scrum; however his style has brought him little reward throughout his career.
Despite passing the unwanted milestone of having played in 100 Test defeats following the Scotland loss in last year’s tournament, Parisse will be the key man for O’Shea once again this time around.
An important selection dilemma centres around the fly-half position, with O’Shea needing to choose between Tommaso Allan, who plays club rugby at Benetton Treviso, and Carlo Canna, the star player of Parma-based club Zebre. Allan, a former Scotland U20 international, was the preferred man during the autumn tests and will be hoping to add to his 41 international appearances.
O’Shea was in the crowd when the pair of fly-halves faced off in the annual Guinness PRO14 tournament at the turn of this year, when Allan’s Benetton secured a 28-10 win over its rivals.
As a side note for the Italians, Toulouse hooker Leonardo Ghialdini will be hoping to make his 100th appearance for the Azzurri in the opening game against Scotland, an away match on 2 February, having featured in 99 tests to date. Fullback Luke McLean, an Italian-Australian who made his debut for Italy in 2008, will also overtake Mirco Bergamasco as the tenth most capped player in Italy’s history if he features once in the tournament.
Two decades since joining the Six Nations, Italy’s aim remains focused on avoiding the infamous wooden spoon – the mythical prize for the team finishing at the bottom of the table.
In their 19 attempts so far, the Italians have taken home the unwanted award on 13 occasions – including last year, having lost all five of their matches. With such a record, there has been clamour from some circles around Europe that Italy’s place in the tournament should be called into question.
For the last few years, the threat of emerging rugby union nation Georgia has added fuel to the debate. Georgia has gradually improved and some rugby critics have considered the side a tougher challenge than the Italians for the established rugby-playing countries.
However Italy’s convincing victory over Georgia in the autumn internationals – when four tries helped Italy emerge with a 28-17 win – has put the argument on the back burner.
Taking Italy out of the Six Nations would seem an unattractive option for the organisers and the rest of Europe, given the glamour the Azzurri bring to the championship. Rugby supporters flock en masse to the matches in Rome, giving the Stadio Olimpico a lively atmosphere between the passionate home support mixed with jolly visitors.
It was the English and Scots that came to Rome in 2018 – and with reverse fixtures in operation in 2019, the Irish, Welsh and French support will bring noise and colour to the capital this time around.
Although fortunes did not favour Italy last season, the team's most encouraging performance came in the final match against Scotland, which Italy faces first in this year’s competition.
The Scots host Italy at Murrayfield Stadium on 2 February, having dramatically clinched the reverse contest in the final moments in Rome last year. Italy appeared on course to end a sorry run of defeats in the competition until Greig Landlaw slotted over a penalty for the Scots in the 79th minute to snatch a 29-27 victory away from Conor O’Shea’s side.
Italy’s opening home game of 2019 will be against four-time Six Nations winners Wales, holders of 15 Five Nations crowns, at 16.45 on 9 February.
Following a weekend rest, reigning champions Ireland, who completed a Grand Slam of five victories in 2018, visit the Eternal City on 23 February (16.45 kick-off) before Italy head to England in week four on 9 March.
The Six Nations rounds off with a thrilling triple bill on 16 March when Italy welcomes France to the Stadio Olimpico for the Giuseppe Garibaldi Trophy in the lunchtime kick-off at 12.30.
Women's Six Nations
As always, the Women’s Six Nations and Under 20s competition will run parallel to the senior men’s tournament. The Federazione Italiana Rugby (FIR) can point to both tournaments as signs of progress in the sport across the country.
The U20s Italy team gave great promise throughout its campaign in 2018, pushing England and Ireland to the brink in narrow defeats before wins over Wales and Scotland in the tournament's final matches ensured that the team – competing only since 2008 – finished in fourth place.
Italy has also had far greater fortune in the women’s game and has taken home the wooden spoon on only three occasions from the 12 tournaments played. Indeed the Italian women finished last season fourth in the table after finishing with back-to-back wins over Wales (22-15) and Scotland (26-12).
This time around, the Italian women’s side will travel around the country for three home matches. The side faces Wales on 9 February (20.00) at Stadio Via del Mar - Ettore Giardininero in Lecce; Ireland on 23 February 23 (19.30) at Viale Piacenza, Parma; and France on 17 March (14.30 kick-off) at Stadio Plebiscito, Padova. The Italian women have yet to secure qualification for the next Women’s World Cup, which is scheduled in New Zealand in 2021.
The men’s competition in the World Cup in Japan will take place from 20 September to 2 November and Italy has been drawn in Pool B alongside reigning World Champions New Zealand as well as South Africa, Namibia and Canada.
The Azzurri face minnows Namibia (22 September) and Canada (26 September) in their opening matches before the crunch qualification games against South Africa (4 October) and New Zealand (12 October). Only two teams will qualify from Pool B into the quarter-finals.
By Ed White
Free Museums.There will be free admission to 16 Rome museums for holders of tickets for the 2019 Six Nations rugby tournament during the weekends of the three games being played at the Stadio Olimpico.
This article was published in the February 2019 edition of Wanted in Rome magazine.
AddressViale dello Stadio Olimpico, 00135 Roma RM, Italia