Last November Italy scored just one try, in three games, against Fiji in Catania. In 2017 no Tier One nation scored fewer tries than the Azzurri, 13 in 11 matches. They came away tryless three times, against Scotland in the Six Nations (29-0 in Murrayfield), and against the Pumas and the Springboks in the autumn internationals.
Yet in November Italy’s lineout and scrum were just as good as the Irish ones and they were better than anybody else in lineout steals. Their possession numbers were excellent, but they made little ground with ball in hand and very few players managed to make clean breaks.
On the bench Matteo Minozzi watched while his team-mates crashed into the other team’s defence like mosquitos on a car windscreen. At 21 he had just moved up into the Zebre line-up and Conor O’Shea put him on for five minutes as a blood replacement during the Fiji game. Then he collected a few more minutes against Argentina and South Africa, but his talent remained for the most part hidden.
He might, however, turn out to be Italy’s secret weapon in the Six Nations. Small and fast he is a natural game-breaker. Last season he wastop try scorer in Italy’s domestic league (The Eccellenza) and with his 16 touch downs for Calvisano he caught the eye of Conor O’Shea, who might now decide to give him the No.15 jersey and let him unleash his speed.
A natural talent, Minozzi is, of course, short of international experience and, at 1.75 and less than 80 kilos, he might lack bulk and power, but Italy is in such desperate need of spark and flair that this can easily be overlooked.
With Zebre, in the last few months, he has proved his bursts of speed can be lethal. The Parma franchise has not actually won many matches in the Pro14 but they have scored a respectable 31 tries in the 13 games played so far, nine more than the Ospreys in the same conference, seven more than Treviso, and just two less than Edinburgh in the other group.
This, of course, is not just down to the full-back’s ability, but he has slotted perfectly into the backline and, with Michele Campagnaro still nursing a broken knee and Leonardo Sarto also injured, he could well be the Azzurri’ surprise weapon in the Six Nations.
Last season Italy’s game plan was to kick deep and apply pressure, but these tactics failed and they got thrashed by Ireland and Scotland. Wales were the only team not to come away with the four-try bonus against the Azzurri in the tournament.
When defence coach, and strategy mentor, South African Brendan Venter went back home in spring to help his home nation, Conor O’Shea and his staff decided to give their approach an overhaul and try to play with more ball in hand. Has it worked? Not exactly.
The Azzurri maintained possession but still didn’t score. Winger Sarto epitomised the problem. A game-breaker with the Glasgow Warriors he looked lost with Italy.
“We are laying the foundations of our building,” said forwards coach Gianpiero De Carli. “Last autumn, possession was good, scrum and lineouts worked well. We want to make sure that our house is sturdy and sound. It has to be able to stand up to the hurricanes and earthquakes of international rugby.
“But we know that solid is not enough to win. The house has to be fitted with windows and doors and painted and furnished.
“If you have Michelangelo you get the Sistine Chapel and Saint Peters, if you haven’t you just get an ordinary building.
“Unfortunately, Michelangelos are few and far between, and more to the point there no school that can teach you to be like them.”
O’Shea, in the past 15 months, has been trying to build the system, rather than the house itself, putting on for the players everything they need to reach their full potential.
The academies are now working more closely with the two Pro14 franchises and with the national squad, the structure that is being implemented to promote a high-performance route is going to bear fruit. In this season’s Six Nations squad, at least 15 of the 34 initially selected will be new to the tournament and a dozen of them have come through the academies.
Minozzi, of course, is one of them, but also Giovanni Licata, 21, a very talented back row forward, and Renato Giammarioli, 23, a flanker with the speed of a winger. They both made their debut in November but could be fresh legs in a new-look Italy where, at No.10, Carlo Canna has still the cards to surprise and create but must be left free to follow his instincts. The Six Nations will be the ultimate challenge for him and his half-back partner Marcello Violi.
At 34, Sergio Parisse is starting his 14th Six Nations. If he plays in all five games this year he will equal Brian O’Driscoll’s record of 65 appearances in the tournament.
Conor O’Shea said he has had to kick-start a machine which had been stalled for a good 20 years. He might be right, but only results will tell.
In the Six Nations nothing else matters.