With the Northern Hemisphere season now done and dusted apart from the French Top 14 final this weekend, we hand out our verdict on the Six Nations Competitors and what we feel they got out of their year on a score out of ten. As the six teams take a much needed break before the August warm ups in preparation for September’s World Cup in Japan, the 2018/19 season has been a pivotal one for all six teams involved.
We’ll be the first to admit it’s completely subjective based on what we saw and where in our humble opinions it leaves the teams heading into the World Cup. We highlight the match we most enjoyed from each of the teams, and we try to pick the player who made the greatest contribution to their national cause over the past season, as well as the player that we feel is most likely to catch the eye in Japan three months from now. So take from it what you will but without any further ado let’s get into it in part 1 where we take a look at how Italy fared.
Italy – 6/10
Italy got their season off to a difficult start as they made their way across the Atlantic for an exhibition game against Ireland at the beginning of November. The game was played in Chicago’s iconic Soldier Field and which in many ways has become Ireland’s home away from home, after their historic win there over New Zealand’s All Blacks in 2017. Italy were able to hold their own in a scrappy first half, but which saw Ireland ahead by only 14-7. However, in the second half the floodgates opened as a disorganized Italian defense struggled to contain a rampant Irish side who would run in 6 unanswered tries. Ireland would end the match as comfortable winners 54-7, and Italy would return home with a less than auspicious start to their season.
A week later however, Italy regrouped and were able to put together a performance that was able to silence the critics that have increasingly called for their relegation from the Six Nations in favor of Georgia. Georgia traveled to Florence and ensured that it was a highly entertaining match, but Italy would ultimately prevail but were made to sweat right to the end. Both sides had everything to prove, Italy would kick themselves for some poor discipline at times which allowed Georgia to constantly keep in touch with two fine tries. However, Georgia would let their concentration slip with five minutes to go and Italy ensured that they were able to hang onto possession and close out the match.
Next up Italy would take on an Australian side that was under performing almost as dramatically as they were, and as a result some felt this could be Italy’s chance to cause an upset and build on the momentum of their win over Georgia. Once again, as in the contest with Ireland at the beginning of the month, the first half was a closely fought affair, but Australia were still able to run in two unanswered tries and take a 14-0 lead into the break as in the final ten minutes of the half, Italy’s defence once again proved porous. The Wallabies would continue to build on this out of the gates in the second half with yet another try, but Italy were able to strike back with a fine try of their own. Australia’s discipline began to slip as Scott Sio was the recipient of a yellow card, but Italy were unable to capitalize on their man advantage. Australia’s defence held firm against some opportunistic but ultimately poorly executed Italian attacks and ultimately the visitors would once more get control of the match and seal it with their fourth try at the death. After such promise only a week earlier, Italy would limp off the field suffering an agonizing 26-7 loss.
A clearly demoralized Italian side then had the singular misfortune of having to face an angry and wounded New Zealand, after the All Blacks’ historic loss to Ireland the week before. The All Blacks fury knew no bounds and Italy were sadly lambs to the slaughter and never really looked like they were in the match from the get go, as New Zealand ran out an emphatic 66-3 victory.
Italy would take a much needed break to lick their wounds, but in the interim would take heart from club side Benetton Treviso’s healthy exploits in the PRO 14 league and the European Challenge Cup.
The Six Nations promised a fresh start, and their opener in Edinburgh against Scotland did not disappoint, even if Italy were to ultimately walk away on the wrong side of the scoreline. Italy were under the hammer for much of the match, but a yellow card picked up by the hosts with just over ten minutes to go would transform the Azurri. In one of the best passages of play we’ve seen from an Italian side in a long time, Italy would run in three tries in the space of ten minutes. It showed what Italy can do if they put their minds to it, and what’s more do it at the end of a game, instead of doing as they usually do, and fade away by the final quarter. Still it was all too little too late and Scotland would ultimately come away with a bonus point 33-20 win.
Italy’s next opponents were ultimate Six Nations Grand Slam champions Wales in Rome. It was not exactly a spectacle that most of us will choose to remember. Wales did enough but didn’t really impress in the process and Italy were just badly organised and scrappy. However, it was starting to ring alarm bells as Italy registered their 4th straight loss in a row 26-15.
Italy would then take on an Irish side who would look distinctly average in Rome. Italy took the fight to Ireland and looked the part, frustrating their Celtic visitors beyond belief. Italy made Ireland work exceptionally hard and the sight of a clearly rattled and out of sorts Johnny Sexton leaving the field summed up just how effective Italy had been at getting under Ireland’s skin. Ireland would ultimately come out on top and take the match 26-16 but courtesy of constant Italian pressure, it was one of the worst Irish performances we saw all year and sweet revenge for Italy after their 54 point thumping by Ireland just a few months earlier in Chicago.
A difficult trip to Twickenham was next on the agenda, and once more Italy appeared to have little if anything to add to a very one-sided contest. A porous Italian defense would see England run in 8 tries to Italy’s two, and yet another thumping was dished out to an Italian side that by now most had written off, as England ran away the winners 57-14.
Italy’s last match of a depressing season overall, given the fact that with the upcoming World Cup there would be no June tour, would be against France back in Rome. France were also suffering from poor form and many felt this would be Italy’s last shot at redemption ahead of preparations for the World Cup. Italy would at times play some sparkling attacking rugby, but ultimately just fall short of finishing off some excellent opportunities. There were times in the match were the margins would close up and you felt it could go either way, with Italian scrum half Tito Tebaldi continuing to be one of Italy’s genuine play makers. However, France somehow managed to regroup and even under pressure with a man in the sin bin, it would be les Bleus who would have the final say through a brilliant Damian Penaud try in a match that Italy should have won. Italy would once again have to settle for yet another loss and a Six Nations wooden spoon.
In short, not a good year for Italy. One victory from nine attempts simply doesn’t look good. Once more given the fact that they didn’t exactly put Georgia to the sword, the call for a relegation system in the Six Nations raised its head once more. However, let’s put it in perspective for a moment. What Italy did show off this year was some very promising young talent that is making a name for itself on the club scene in Europe. At times this year they looked genuinely exciting on attack and they are able to defend when they get their structures right. Yes Italy are still the work in progress that everyone has been saying they are since their inclusion in the Six Nations in 2000, but we felt a lot more optimistic about them after this year.
They have a World Cup pool that will sadly do them no favors in terms of advancing beyond the pool stages as that would necessitate them getting past the New Zealand juggernaut and a revitalized South Africa. However, a strong third place finish in their pool is surely on the cards as Namibia and Canada should prove relatively soft targets for them. If Italy can emerge from the World Cup having won the games they will be clearly targeting and putting up a good fight against the heavyweights in their pool, then we’d argue that the next four year cycle for Italy between World Cups could just turn out to be those golden years they have been waiting for for so long. For their sake we certainly hope so!
Match of the year – Italy vs Georgia – Florence – November 10th – Italy 28/Georgia 17
It was definitely their best performance of the year, and it needed to be. With the rest of the rugby world asking questions regarding Italy’s merit and right to a place in the Six Nations, they simply had to beat their arch rivals for European ascendancy – Georgia. While they may not have done so emphatically, they nevertheless carved out a gritty and important win and showed that there is no lack of passion in the Azurri jersey. They had the lion’s share of possession and territory and outscored Georgia four tries to two. Georgia was forced to make twice as many tackles and Italy even got the upper hand over the much vaunted Georgian scrum. It may not have been pretty at times but Italy looked the part when it mattered most.
Player of the year – Tito Tebaldi
At the heart of everything that Benetton and Italy did well this year, the 31 year old scrum half really has had a year to remember even if he was only on a winning Italian side once. His speed of passing and eye for opportunity was a joy to watch this year, and his tackling proved ferocious. In short, he may not have many years left in an Azurri jersey but he has clearly reached the top of his game and certainly looks to be a big part of whatever successes Italy may have in the next few years. A player that Italy can be genuinely excited by every time he takes to the field and one who leads by example.
Player to watch in 2019 – Federico Ruzza
Italy had quite a few this year, but Ruzza really stood out for us. A constant menace in the lineout and a very handy and pacy wing forward when needed, the second rower has impressed for both club Benetton and the Azurri. His tackling has been solid, and his ability to turn loose ball into opportunity for club and country has been exciting to watch. With head of steam up, he’s a hard man to bring down and has a pretty nifty sidestep to boot. Ruzza is definitely a player we feel can translate Benetton’s success onto the international stage for Italy. Expect him to feature heavily in press releases for the Azurri come the World Cup.
We’ll end this report card with some highlights of Italy’s best Test of the year against Georgia during the November Internationals, and the type of performance they will need and then some for a very difficult World Cup challenge that lies ahead!
Up next – Scotland!