Italian rugby might appear to be struggling.
However, if we look under the surface there are some promising signs. Below international level, Italian teams have been doing quite well.
Benetton, Zebre and Italy U20
Benetton have beaten Edinburgh, Ospreys and the Southern Kings already this season. They gave Bath a scare and almost overcame Toulon in the Champions Cup. Zebre have beaten Ulster, hammered the Southern Kings and lost by a point against Edinburgh and the Cheetahs respectively. These teams have replaced several foreign players with young Italian prospects. They look fitter, better organised and more competitive than they have ever been.
At the recent U20 World Cup, Italy U20 beat Ireland 22-21 and lost by a single point to both Wales and Scotland. There are promising signs for the future in Italian Rugby.
Italy’s November so far
The national team are playing with better shape, especially in attack. In the win against Fiji, they had a second and sometimes third line when attacking wider channels.
They made 11 offloads, beat 15 defenders and made 5 line-breaks. They dominated territory and possession, restricting Fiji to a single try. The scorer of that try, Leone Nakarawa, has at times made more offloads in a single game than the 10 Fiji managed against Italy.
Italy lost 15-31 to Argentina in their next game. Argentina were able to dominate territory and possession. Although the game was level on the hour mark, Italy faded towards the end. However, despite not scoring a try, Italy actually made more line breaks than Argentina (10-9) and more offloads (8-4). With over 50 fewer carries, Italy made almost the same metres with ball in hand (382-400). The lead changed hands 8 times and it was a close game for the most part. There are reasons to be optimistic that they can threaten South Africa despite the defeat.
Last time around
Last year Italy was able to beat a poor South African side 20-18. They fed off Springbok errors, played with ferocious intensity and fought back twice when they fell behind early on. Having that experience will help Italy if they can stay close on the scoreboard.
Conor O’Shea is a very astute tactician. The famous no ruck tactics employed against England in last year’s 6 Nations showed the Italian coaches can think outside the box. His Harlequins teams offloaded more than anyone, which is why it is important to check whether Italy is doing the same. That Italy offloaded more than either Fiji or Argentina in their latest games is a very positive sign.
South Africa’s form
South Africa is at the end of a long season. They are struggling in attack, as this excellent article by Conor Wilson explains in more depth.
The Boks did manage a confidence boosting 17-18 win over France at the weekend. They can likely write off the 57-0 game against the All Blacks as an aberration against the world’s best team. However, if Italy can stay close, the battering they so recently suffered at the hands of Ireland might just eat away at their fragile confidence.
World Cup ramifications?
This game foreshadows the team’s meeting in World Cup Pool B. If Italy can win here, it could have serious consequences for 2019. With the All Blacks still in rude health, the loser of this pool game is likely to be out of the World Cup. Could 2019 be the year the Springboks fall at the group stage?
I do think South Africa will win, they have so much quality in the spine of their team. The game is so important to them given the World Cup context. Don’t write off Italy, but I predict a South African win by fifteen points.
Author: Daniel Pugsley
I am a 31 year old from Yorkshire, England. I have played social rugby for 25 years in England, Japan, Italy, Poland and the UAE. I teach English as a foreign language, which explains why I’ve lived in so many places. I recently moved back to England and have had to take a break from playing, but I hope to pull on the boots again soon.