Backs now putting their best foot forward for Italy

Traditional national game based upon a strong pack is undergoing a transformation

Italy’s  Tommaso Allan of Italy looks to release the backs during the  World Cup Pool D match against France  at Twickenham Stadium. Photo:  David Rogers/Getty Images

Italy’s Tommaso Allan of Italy looks to release the backs during the World Cup Pool D match against France at Twickenham Stadium. Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images

 

The old adage that ‘if you have a reputation for getting up early you can stay in bed all day,’ is one to which the Italian backs might subscribe given the criticism that is generally leveled in their direction in contrast to the bouquets tossed to their forward pack.

The superficial analysis of the Italian national side can be summarised in a single sentence: excellent forwards, the perennial hunt for an outhalf and substandard back play. It may have been accurate at one point and there are certainly shards of truth that linger but the Italian backs are getting something of a raw deal when their scoring contribution is measured against that of the Azzurri forwards.

In Italy’s last 21-matches since the start of the 2014 Six Nations Championship, they have managed to score 28 tries and the breakdown of that figure reveals that 17 have come from the backs, seven from the forwards and four were penalty tries.

While it is a bald statistic, and not exact in providing specifics in relation to the genesis of the 28 tries, it doesn’t reflect badly on the contribution of the backs. It’s also worth noting that Italy’s four penalty tries during that period came against Fiji (2), Japan and Scotland.

Adding further context is the fact that Jacques Brunel’s team won only three of those 21 matches, against Samoa, Scotland and Canada. When viewed as individuals the Italian backs are talented, outside centre Michele Campagnaro a case in point, during the 2014 Six Nations Championship, while winger Leonardo Sarto has a decent try scoring record.

Tommaso Benvenuti came with a huge reputation from underage international rugby but frankly hasn’t delivered on that promise reduced to a bit part player with the national side, albeit getting a couple of starts of late.

They’ve had injuries too, Campagnaro, Gonzalo Garcia, Kelly Haimona and more recently tournament ending ones to Andrea Masi and Luca Morisi but the most obvious stumbling block has been finding a halfback partner for Edoardo Gori.

They’ve tried a multitude in the past to find a worthy successor to Diego Dominguez but over those 21 matches Brunel has plumped for the veteran Luciano Orquera, the 22-year old Tommaso Allan and New Zealander, Haimona; the latter broke his leg in March and suffered complications during the summer.

In his absence Allan, who plays with French ProD2 side Perpignan, has been handed the number 10 jersey for what is despite his tender years a second stint. Trying to come to terms with the massive step-up to international rugby has been made more difficult by injuries but there has been reasonable continuity in selection in the backline.

It’s ironic therefore that Italy’s greatest strength in the past, their pack, might be considered a substantial weakness. It has grown old, the brilliant Sergio Parisse and Martin Castrogiovanni no longer the players they were in their pomp.

Italy cannot dominate teams in the past as they once did, a state of affairs that’s down to some aging limbs and also a shift in the modern game where referees are more pernickety when it comes to scrum-time. Paint the wrong picture as Italy have done based on penalties conceded in recent games, and a strength can become a liability.

A conversation with Benvenuti during the week raised an interesting point in this regard. He grimaced slightly before allowing a rueful smile when fielding dog-eared questions about the Italian backs not keeping their end up, so to speak.

He observed: “It’s been said a lot, about this. It is not frustrating but it is something that we know. We have it on our shoulders. We know that the pack is very strong. We want to do our best every game. With the new rules, maybe we are not as good as we were on the forward side of things, as (we were) a few years ago. I think the game is shifting a little bit more to the backs as well.”

It’s fair commentary. There are other mitigating factors like the decline of Benetton Treviso principally and Zebre and their ability to compete meaningfully in the Guinness Pro12.

Italy’s South African-born hooker Dario Chistolini was upbeat about the future of Italian back play pointing out: “We have a very young backline at the moment. They do have a lot of talent and I would suspect that maybe in two or three years when it is the same guys who have been in the World Cup and Six Nations before, they will benefit from that and so will the team.”

But what of Sunday and the Ireland game?

Well despite Italy’s injury issues in the backs, this will be Luke McLean’s 16th appearance at fullback during the period outlined, the centre partnership of Michele Campagnaro and Gonzalo Garcia have played more than any other permutation and the halfbacks Tommaso Allan and Edoardo Gori are joint highest in that regard.

So Italy have a relatively young, reasonably experienced set of backs, who have accounted for almost two thirds of the tries scored during the last 21 matches. Perhaps the most pertinent issue should be to address whether it is the forwards more so than the backs that deserve to be held accountable in recent times.

Italy’s backlines since 2014 Six Nations Championship

2014 Six Nations Championship Wales 23 Italy 15, Millennium stadium Backline: L McLean; A Esposito, M Campagnaro, A Sgarbi, L Sarto; T Allan, E Gori.

France 30 Italy 10, Stade de France Backline: L McLean; T Iannone, M Campagnaro, G Garcia, L Sarto; T Allan, E Gori.

Italy 20 Scotland 21, Stadio Olimpico Backline: L McLean; A Esposito, M Campagnaro, G Garcia, L Sarto; T Allan, E Gori.

Ireland 46 Italy 7, Aviva Stadium Backline: L McLean, A Esposito, M Campagnaro, G Garcia, L Sarto, L Orquera, T Tebaldi.

Italy 11 England 52, Stadio Olimpico Backline: L McLean; A Esposito, M Campagnaro, G Garcia, L Sarto; L Orquera, T Tebaldi.

Summer tour to Pacific Islands and Japan

Fiji 25 Italy 14, Suva Backline: L McLean; L Sarto, M Campagnaro, A Sgarbi, G Venditti; L Orquera, G Palazzani. Samoa 15 Italy 0, Apia Backline: L McLean; A Esposito, A Masi, G Garcia, G Venditti; T Allan, T Tebaldi.

Japan 26 Italy 23, Tokyo Backline: L McLean; L Sarto, M Campagnaro, G Garcia, G Venditti; L Orquera, T Tebaldi. November Test series

Italy 24 Samoa 13, Ascoli Backline: A Masi; L Sarto, M Campagnaro, L Morisi, L McLean; K Haimona, E Gori. Italy 18 Argentina 20, Genoa Backline: A Masi; L Sarto, M Campagnaro, L Morisi, L McLean; K Haimona, E Gori.

Italy 6 South Africa 22, Padova Backline: A Masi; L Sarto, M Campagnaro, L Morisi, L McLean; K Haimona, E Gori.

2015 Six Nations Championship

Ireland 26 Italy 3, Aviva Stadium Backline: A Masi; L Sarto, M Campagnaro, L Morisi, L McLean; K Haimona, E Gori.

England 47 Italy 17, Twickenham Backline: L McLean; L Sarto, L Morisi, A Masi, G Venditti; K Haimona, E Gori.

Scotland 19 Italy 22, Murrayfield Backline: L McLean; M Visentin, L Morisi, E Bacchin, G Venditti, K Haimona, E Gori.

Italy 0 France 29, Stadio Olimpico Backline: L McLean; L Sarto, L Morisi, A Masi, G Venditti; T Allan, E Gori.

Italy 20 Wales 61, Stadio Olimpico Backline: L McLean; L Sarto, L Morisi, A Masi, G Venditti; K Haimona, E Gori. World Cup warm-up matches

 Italy 12 Scotland 16, Torino Backline: A Masi; L Sarto, T Benvenuti, G Garcia, G Venditti; T Allan, G Palazzani.

Scotland 48 Italy 7, Murrayfield Backline: L McLean; A Esposito, M Campagnaro, L Morisi, L Sarto; T Allan, G Palazzani.

Wales 23 Italy 19, Millennium Stadium Backline: A Masi; L Sarto, L Morisi, G Garcia, G Venditti; T Allan, E Gori. 2015

 Rugby World Cup

Italy 10 France 32, Twickenham Backline: L McLean; L Sarto, M Campagnaro, A Masi, G Venditti; T Allan, E Gori.

Italy 23 Canada 18, Elland Road Backline: L McLean; L Sarto, T Benvenuti, G Garcia, G Venditti; T Allan, E Gori.

Ireland v Italy, Olympic stadium Backline: L McLean; L Sarto, M, Gonzalo Garcia, G Venditti; T Allan, E Gori.

Most appearances in last 21 matches Fullback: Luke McLean (16). Wings: Leonardo Sarto (20), Giovanbattista Venditti (12). Centres (pairing): Michele Campagnaro/Luca Morisi and Campagnaro/Gonzalo Garcia each played on five occasions as a pair; Michele Campagnaro/Gonzalo Garcia (6) . Halfbacks (pairing): Kelly Haimona/Edoardo Gori (7), Tommaso Allan/E Gori .

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