Six Nations report card: Italy show signs of improvement but not finished article yet
After two rounds of the Six Nations, the competition takes a break, allowing us to take stock and provide a report card for each team. Next up, it’s Italy.
There was plenty of optimism in the Azzurri’s ranks ahead of this year’s Championship as they have shown genuine improvement under the guidance of head coach Kieran Crowley, who took charge of the team midway through 2021.
Since Crowley’s appointment, there has been an air of excitement around Italian rugby as he has hinted at a more thrilling style of play. The head coach has stayed true to his word and although the Azzurri have been inconsistent, they have made the other tier one nations sit up and take notice of their potential in 2022, after sealing momentous victories over Wales and Australia.
They came into the Six Nations with plenty of optimism and delivered a fine performance in their tournament opener against defending champions France, who had to dig deep before claiming a narrow 29-24 victory in Rome.
However, Italy could not back that up with a similar effort against England in their Round Two encounter at Twickenham as they suffered a 31-14 loss.
Those defeats leave the Azzurri second from bottom in the standings, with a bonus-point point picked up in that defeat to Les Bleus being the difference between them and bottom-placed Wales.
This was a difficult choice as both Ange Capuozzo and Sebastian Negri have been excellent in those defeats to France and England but in the end we’ve opted for Negri.
The Benetton tearaway has been at the forefront of the Azzurri’s onslaught in those opening Tests and in both encounters he got the better of his direct opponents after delivering outstanding performances. That was no mean feat as he went up against highly rated players in France’s Charles Ollivon and Lewis Ludlam of England.
Negri emptied the tank on both occasions and caught the eye with barnstorming attacking runs which gave his team much needed momentum. He is currently in joint-first position – alongside Scotland fly-half Finn Russell – for making the most carries (30) in the Championship.
The Azzurri flanker’s excellence on attack is best illustrated in his metres gained so far. He is currently in third position amongst Italy’s players in that department (149 metres), with only Capuozzo and Juan Ignacio Brex gaining more metres than him. That statistic also puts Negri in second for all the forwards in the tournament, with only Ireland’s Caelan Doris (163 metres) doing better than him.
It’s not just Negri’s attacking game which has been impressive, however. He has also made his mark with solid defensive statistics and has proven to be a handy option in the lineouts.
While Negri and Capuozzo have hit the ground running this year, there haven’t been many of the other players who have really put their hand up against Les Bleus and the Red Rose.
However, Italy’s forwards have played well as a collective and apart from Negri, second-row Federico Ruzza has caught the eye with two solid performances.
Ruzza has been a valuable source of possession for his side thanks to his tireless work in the lineout and after the first two rounds he is topping the tournament stats, with 15 balls won at the set-piece so far.
Apart from his outstanding work in that facet of play, the 28-year-old has also impressed as a ball carrier as he gained good metres, while he does not shirk his defensive duties, making 13 and eight tackles respectively against France and England.
It will not be surprising that this moment belongs to excitement machine Capuozzo, who is a vital cog in the Azzurri side and, based on current form, is arguably the best full-back in the world at the moment.
The 23-year-old announced himself in last year’s Six Nations with a brilliant line break which set up the match-winning try for Edoardo Padovani in a momentous victory over Wales in Cardiff.
Capuozzo has continued to shine during the rest of 2022 at club level for Toulouse, whom he joined from Grenoble midway through the year, and in internationals. It did not take long for him to set this year’s Six Nations alight with a moment of magic.
That came in the 33rd minute of Italy’s Test against France in Rome when, with Les Bleus holding a 19-6 lead, Italy launched an attack off the back of a scrum on the visitors’ five-metre line. The ball came out to Capuozzo, who was confronted by Gregory Alldritt, but the France number eight’s presence was not a problem for the Italy full-back, who bamboozled his opponent with dazzling footwork before crossing for a well-taken try in the left-hand corner.
Italy’s attacking play has come on in leaps and bounds in recent years and in Capuozzo they have found a genuine attacking threat who can carve open the tightest defences at will.
Right now, he is his team’s biggest weapon as he can change the course of a match with his outstanding skill-set. Although players who possess bulk and have strength are key assets in the professional game, Capuozzo has shown that there is still a role for smaller players and his ability to beat opponents with ease usually creates plenty of try-scoring opportunities for himself and his team-mates.
It’s not just about Capuozzo creating those chances for himself though, but also about his Azzurri team-mates doing likewise for him, albeit that has seldom been the case so far this year.
However, Italy’s first choice fly-half Paolo Garbisi, who missed the Six Nations’ opening rounds due to a knee injury, returned to action for his club Montpellier in the Top 14 on Saturday. That means he could possibly be back for his country when they host Ireland in Rome this weekend. That would be a boost for the team, and particularly Capuozzo, as Garbisi is a superb playmaker who should unleash his outside backs.
Despite being more competitive this year, in both their previous Tests, Italy made slow starts which ultimately came back to haunt them in the end.
In their tournament opener, Les Bleus scored two tries in quick succession which eventually gave them a 19-6 lead by the half-hour mark. The Azzurri came back strongly after that and even held the lead briefly in the final quarter before France scored late on to secure victory.
Italy did not heed that lesson as they were even slower out of the blocks against England, who raced into a 19-0 half-time lead. Although Italy came back strongly after the interval and actually won the second half 14-12, the damage was done in the opening period. If they want to win a Test in this year’s tournament, they simply have to do better during the early stages of matches.
Another area which will be concerning for Crowley is their scrummaging as they have conceded the most penalties at the set-piece (5) in the tournament so far.
Overall, Italy are much more competitive in the Six Nations than they have been in previous seasons, especially in recent years when they lost matches by huge margins and regularly conceded 50 points or more.
A big reason for that is the emergence of the likes of Capuozzo, Garbisi, captain Michele Lamaro, Negri and Ruzza who, when at their best, are good enough to walk into any Test team.
What is crucial is that the other players also step up in the remaining matches and that the whole team delivers an improved effort for a full 80 minutes if they want to emulate last year’s achievement of winning at least one match.
Despite losing their first two encounters, Italy should have some confidence in their ranks as they approach their last three fixtures.
That is largely due to the impending return of Garbisi and their performances in the latter stages of those previous games. If they can make better starts and continue to maintain that standard – especially in Rome – then they should manage to win a Test.
With Wales currently in disarray and bringing up the rear on the table, Italy will target their Round Four encounter against Warren Gatland’s charges as the match to win and it’s not an impossible task. Their other two matches are against the only unbeaten teams left in the competition – Ireland and Scotland – and those will be difficult assignments, although they should give a good account of themselves.
Overall, Italy have done better than expected as they have improved and are much more competitive. We predicted another wooden spoon for them in our pre-tournament preview and still feel a sixth-placed finish is looming, although it is possible that they can repeat last season’s result and beat Wales. We therefore give them a report card score of a C.
READ MORE: Six Nations report card: Wales fail to impress in Warren Gatland’s first fortnight back in charge
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