A familiar story for the competition’s perennial whipping boys until that famous victory in Cardiff that ended a 36-game losing run in the Six Nations. The Ange Capuozzo break that set up Edoardo Padovani’s game-winner will live long in the memory.
Two victories followed in the summer over minnows Portugal and Romania, though a defeat to Georgia was concerning given frequent calls for the eastern European side to replace Italy in the Six Nations.
However, a thumping win over Samoa which was followed up by victory over Australia in November confirmed to all that Italy have well and truly turned a corner.
Results - (6N) v France (a) L 37-10; v England (h) L 0-33; v Ireland (a) L 57-6; v Scotland (a) L 22-33; v Wales (a) W 21-22. Summer internationals - v Portugal (a) W 31-38; v Romania (a) W 13-45; v Georgia (a) L 28-19. Autumn Nations Series - v Samoa (h) W 49-17; v Australia (h) W 28-27; v South Africa (h) L 21-63.
The headline news is the return of Italy’s best player; Paolo Garbisi was initially slated to miss the opening two games due to a knee injury but has been recalled earlier than expected. Where they use him will be interesting. A 10 by trade, he has largely featured at 12 for Montpellier this season and Tommy Allan, who has been in good form deputising at 10 for Marcus Smith at Harlequins, is also in the squad.
Garbisi’s younger brother Alessandro, a scrumhalf, is also in the squad.
Gloucester backrow Jake Polledri is set to appear for the first time since 2020. A long-term knee injury ruled him out of contention for some time, but the powerful ball carrier is now back in the mix. He is joined by Gloucester team-mate Stephen Varney, who is favourite to start at scrumhalf.
Monty Ioane is a big loss. The Australian-born wing moved back home to be closer to family and despite the Italian Rugby Federation saying back in September that he would still be considered for selection, his name does not appear in Kieran Crowley’s squad.
Forwards: Pietro Ceccarelli, (Brive), Simone Ferrari (Benetton), Danilo Fischetti (London Irish), Marco Riccioni (Saracens), Luca Rizzoli (Zebre), Federico Zani (Benetton), Luca Bigi (Zebre), Marco Manfredi (Zebre), Giacomo Nicotera (Benetton), Lorenzo Cannone (Benetton), Niccolo Cannone (Benetton), Riccardo Favretto (Benetton), Federico Ruzza (Benetton), Edoardo Iachizzi (Vannes), Michele Lamaro (Benetton, captain), Sebastian Negri (Benetton), Giovanni Pettinelli (Benetton), Jake Polledri (Gloucester), Manuel Zuliani (Benetton).
Backs: Alessandro Fusco (Zebre), Alessandro Garbisi (Benetton), Paolo Garbisi (Montpellier), Stephen Varney (Gloucester), Tommaso Allan (Harlequins), Giacomo Da Re (Benetton), Juan Ignacio Brex (Benetton), Enrico Lucchin (Zebre), Tommaso Menoncello (Benneton), Luca Morisi (London Irish), Pierre Bruno (Zebre), Ange Capuozzo (Toulouse), Mateo Minozzi (Benetton), Edoardo Padovani (Benetton).
Coach - Kieran Crowley
A former All Black and 1987 World Cup-winner, this is Crowley’s second Six Nations campaign at the helm. His was a natural progression appointment given he led Benetton to their Rainbow Cup win in 2021, the side which is the bulk supplier to his own national squad.
He certainly has timed his run to the national job nicely in that he has a wealth of young talent coming through from Italy’s successful underage sides. Add this to the fact he did break their seemingly endless wait for a Six Nations win and he is a popular man in Italian circles.
Given his age, 61, he has joked about not being overly concerned with job security – something which won’t be an issue if he snaffles another win or two over the coming months – while he has been one of the only coaches to speak out in favour of the ongoing recording of the Netflix documentary.
If fit, Paolo Garbisi by a country mile. Italy do have a number of exciting outside backs, arguably the best pair of attacking fullbacks in the competition in Ange Capuozzo and Mateo Minozzi, not to mention the in-form Benetton centre Ignacio Brex. But as ever with this side, the question is can they earn parity up front?
In this regard, captain Michele Lamaro is their most important player. A nuisance at the breakdown who is also frequently at the top of the tackle charts, his defensive work will be key to slowing down opposition packs that inevitably will have a power advantage.
All of a sudden Italy are no longer the laughing stock of the competition and calls for their exclusion in favour of Georgia have died down. They have played the long game in waiting for the proponents of underage success to come through, but still don’t have enough to seriously challenge.
Playing Ireland and France at home should make life slightly easier in terms of disrupting the two tournament favourites, but quality should dictate who pulls away there. England away also looks like an unwinnable fixture, but the Wales clash at home on March 11th should be circled in red on the Italian calendar given that famous win in Cardiff last year.
Victory there would give Crowley’s side momentum heading to Edinburgh for their final clash. Two wins in this tournament would be an excellent return for Italy, and by no means beyond the bounds of possibility.
Schedule: v France (h) February 5th, 15.00; v England (a) February 12th, 15.00; v Ireland (h) February 25th, 14.15; v Wales (h) March 11th, 14.15; v Scotland (a), March 18th, 12.30.
Odds: Win Six Nations 500-1; Grand Slam 1000-1