Azzurri plagued by same old concerns
Gian Luca Barca
August 30, 2011
Can Italy coach Nick Mallett offer a parting gift to his paymasters? © Getty Images
Two years ago, when Nick Mallett started jotting down his Rugby World Cup squad, the first two names he wrote were skipper Sergio Parisse and former NRL star Craig Gower. They were to be the cornerstones of his project.
Parisse was Mallett's skipper and Gower was the coach's choice to wear the No.10 jersey and marshall the back line. He was the player Italy had been looking for since the days of Diego Dominguez. Moreover, as a South African, Mallet wanted a fly-half who first and foremost was a fierce tackler, Gower, with his Rugby League background, fitted the bill when no one else in Italy could.
However, Gower seriously injured his knee in November 2010 and had to undergo surgery which would keep him out for the rest of the season. In his place Italy tried out Lorenzo Bocchino, from the newly-founded Celtic League franchise, Aironi, Argentinean born Luciano Orquera, from French club Brive, and another Aussie, Chris Burton, of Treviso.
Despite a win against France in the Six Nations, none of Gower's stand-ins proved entirely satisfactory and Mallett continued to await the Bayonne centre's return. It was only at beginning of July, when Italy started their RWC training camp that Gower officially announced that he would be returning to Rugby League and would not be taking part in the World Cup.
As a result, on the eve of the Azzurri's debut in New Zealand, the No.10 spot remains Mallett's most pressing concern. The jersey is up for grabs between Luciano Orquera and Lorenzo Bocchino, the latter started in the warm up against Japan, on August 13, Orquera played a week later against Scotland at Murrayfield.
Both games showed Italy's well known strengths and weaknesses: a world class scrum, with the likes of Martin Castrogiovanni, Andrea Lo Cicero, Totò Perugini, Lorenzo Ghiraldini and Fabio Ongaro in the front row, an all-South African set of locks, with Quentin Geldenhuys, Carlo Del Fava and Cornel Van Zyl, plus former skipper Marco Bortolami, and a skilful back row with Sergio Parisse, Alessandro Zanni, Mauro Bergamasco and co.
Italy's troubles seem to start behind the pack with a back line which fails to convert forward possession into attack and which leaked a couple of tries to both Japan and Scotland.
Individual flair and quality are not lacking, winger Tommaso Benvenuti is a young speedster with a good attacking instinct, as seen in the warm up against Scotland, while Clermont's Gonzalo Canale and Metro Racing's Mirco Bergamasco are first class Top 14 campaigners, with fullback Andrea Masi voted Player of the Championship in this year's Six Nations. The question is how to ignite the team's potential.
Italy will start their World Cup campaign knowing their coach will be parting ways after the tournament, the same as in 2007 when Frenchman Pierre Berbizier announced early in the season that he would be moving to Racing Metro Racing after the tournament in France. The only difference, this time, is that Nick Mallett has openly said that he would have liked to extend his expiring contract for another couple of years.
The Italian Federation thought it was time for a change and have already lined up Jacques Brunel to take charge of the side from the end of 2011 until 2015. Will Mallett's desire to prove the change was wrong give Italy the missing spark?
The Azzurri will make their tournament bow against Australia on September 11, and will have to make the most of the following two games against Russia and the USA before the long awaited clash with Ireland on October 2 in Dunedin.
While the clash against the Wallabies sees the odds stacked heavily against Italy, Mallet's real concerns lie with the next two matches where the Azzurri enter as favourites. "In my four years at the helm of Italy we have played only one game against a team ranked below us, Japan, three weeks ago," Mallett said ahead of his side's departure for New Zealand. "We are simply not used to sitting on top of games and commanding the play. That is why against Russia and the USA we must be very focused, committed and consistent."
At the 2007 World Cup, Italy struggled against Romania (24-18) and only lead 14-5 at half-time in their clash against Portugal before two tries in the dying minutes of the game sealed a 31-5 victory. However, the Azzurri did have a chance to book a place in the quarter-finals only for fullback David Bortolussi to miss a penalty at the end of the decisive game against Scotland in Saint Etienne.
A consistent place kicker is another key item on Italy's wish list ahead of the tournament. The versatile and talented Mirco Bergamasco has proved to be a dedicated all rounder on more than one occasion but not a match winner with the boot.
A last-minute drop goal from fly-half Ronan O'Gara got Ireland off the hook in Rome back in February - will the boot be decisive when the two sides meet again on a damp October evening in Dunedin?
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Gian Luca Barca is the Editor of Allrugby magazine and a TV commentator for Sky Italia