We thought this would be the most compelling and competitive Six Nations for a while and so it has proved to date, with one uncomfortably obvious exception. The entire Italian nation will be watching this afternoon’s match, or should that be mis-match, from behind the sofa and so too will one Irishman.
John Feehan is the burly boss of the Six Nations, the chief executive of the competition, and if he had a pound for every time he’s been asked about Italy’s future in this competition he’d be in Antigua this afternoon rather than in the West Stand at Twickenham.
Once again Feehan was forced into a corner after the last round, having to defend the status quo. No, he assured the world, Italy was not about to be jettisoned and no, Romania/Georgia/USA Eagles/Germany were not about to replace them.
The Azzurri have brought their troubles upon their own heads. While the first squad of 2000 that won their first ever Six Nations match (against Scotland, let’s not forget) were a class act, this side is short on talent and, whisper it, a little short on desire.
It’s difficult to recall now given what subsequently took place but at half time in their opening match of this tournament Conor O’Shea’s side must have been happy with their tournament to date. They had weathered the Welsh storm, scored a try and gone into the half time sheds with a 7-3 lead. That was as good as it got. In three halves of rugby played since then, Italy have conceded 12 tries and 96 points. Ulster’s winger Craig Gilroy grabbed himself a hat-trick in the space of 13 minutes, having only entered the fray early in the second half. This from a team that the convivial Irish coach O’Shea promised would be “difficult to beat”.
Part of the problem lies in the Guinness Pro12 franchises, which do nothing more than teach Italian players ever more inventive ways to lose matches almost every week of the season. They are stuffed full with B-list South Africans and the rugby budget of approximately €4 million is less than half of Munster and Leinster’s spend.
The next problem is player development. On the same weekend that Italy’s senior side was leaking 63 points to Ireland, their U20s team was beaten by one solitary point by their Irish rivals. There is clearly some talent there, including tighthead prop Marco Riccione who has been singled out as one to watch. The question is, what does O’Shea do with him? While his Scottish counterpart Zander Fagerson entered the professional ranks at Glasgow three years ago aged 18 and slowly introduced into that winning culture bit by bit, off the bench, Riccione can either play winning rugby for part-timers Calvisano in the largely amateur ‘Eccelenza’ domestic league or, thrown into the Pro12, he can learn how to lose along with the rest of the Zebre team. It is an unenviable decision and without additional funding it is difficult to ever imagine the Italian pro teams finishing anywhere but the bottom rungs of the Pro12 ladder.
The final problem is one of tactics. Italy’s insistence on kicking the ball down field and inviting the Irish back three to run it back was slow-motion suicide. When the forwards can barely get their hands on the ball the last thing they needed, after umpteen defensive phases which knocks the stuffing out of the best conditioned players, is another slew of green or white shirts coming their way just seconds after they finally get their hands on the pill.
This afternoon they will surely take the sting out of the game, kick the ball into the back of the stand, earn a little recovery time at the lineout before they start tackling the white tsunami coming their way.
If nothing else it will keep the ball in play at a minimum and if that sounds cynical Italy are fighting for credibility here and we need to cut them some slack, as Eddie Jones’ England certainly won’t.
I was talking to one veteran Italian journalist who asked my prediction for this afternoon’s game?
“I don’t really know,” I mused out loud, “something like a 42-8 type of a game.”
“I’ll take it!” he shot back, almost before the words were out of my mouth.
This afternoon is not a genuine contest, it is instead an exercise in damage limitation until O’Shea can tackle the root of the problems.