Six Nations: Italy need Paolo Garbisi to be Dominguez and Baggio rolled into one

20-year-old represents Azzurri’s best chance of ending their Championship drought

Paolo Garbisi attacks for Italy against Ireland in Dublin. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Paolo Garbisi attacks for Italy against Ireland in Dublin. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

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To have any chance at all of breaking a 27-game losing streak in the Six Nations, Paolo Garbisi must embody all the great Azzurri 10s that came before him. The 20-year-old needs to reappear fully formed against France on Saturday. He could also do with evading, kicking, distributing and inspiring in equal measure.

It is an impossible level of expectation even if his talent is unquestionably real.

Imagine Ireland going without victory since 2015. Or their 2019 World Cup campaign being destroyed by a typhoon. Imagine the coach for so much of that miserable run being headhunted by the RFU.

Irish rugby never had it so bad, but they came close when the aforementioned coach, Conor O’Shea, was the resident fullback. O’Shea’s final cap was the 50-18 defeat to England in 2000. Following on from the loss to Argentina in Lens, rock bottom was confirmed at Twickenham that day as an inexperienced 36-year-old Kiwi was on the chopping block.

But the IRFU, after the Brian Ashton debacle, had nowhere else to turn. Warren Gatland did have Brian O’Driscoll and Keith Wood at his disposal. He was about to recall Denis Hickie and Mick Galway while igniting the international careers of Ronan O’Gara, John Hayes, Simon Easterby, Peter Stringer and Shane Horgan.

Franco Smith’s arrival from South Africa has shades of Gatland’s time in Ireland, in that Italy has nowhere else to turn.

The difference is Garbisi’s supporting cast.

Usually, the Italian player to watch segment would be filled by Sergio Parisse but the great number eight stepped off the carousel in 2020.

Despite some lasting foundations being laid by Stephen Aboud - he who created the first IRFU academy - Italian rugby has yet to bottom out. The problem is teenagers. They don’t play anywhere near enough rugby in their high schools.

Paolo Garbisi kicks a penalty for Italy. Photograph: Giuseppe Fama/Inpho
Paolo Garbisi kicks a penalty for Italy. Photograph: Giuseppe Fama/Inpho

Growing up in Bristol, Jake Polledri played plenty of rugby. That the Gloucester flanker, who will miss the Six Nations through injury, quickly became Italy’s best player raises a valid question: why haven’t the FIR flooded their senior squad with Bundee Aki’s and CJ Stander’s when the going was good?

They spend enough money on coaches like O’Shea, Mike Catt and now Smith, why not offer the best Georgian props, South African locks, English flankers or any Argentine that shows a hint of promise, a life less ordinary in northern Italy?

It is too late now. Italy must get by with what they possess, and all the evidence points to the losing streak being extended to 32 come late March.

Matteo Minozzi, the slick Wasps fullback, recently revealed he was too “physically and mentally” drained to live “another two months in a bubble.”

Those words should send alarm bells ringing through the corridors of power. One of the sport’s naturally gifted young players cannot cope with life in camp during the pandemic. Imagine the inner turmoil that prompted Minozzi to spurn the opportunity to show off in the Six Nations. You would like to think these athletes are beyond excited to enter a high-performance environment but the guarantee of losing almost every match appears to be taking an enormous toll.

That leaves Garbisi, the sturdy outhalf who last October sold Jacob Stockdale an outrageous dummy, having stepped CJ Stander and glided away from Ed Byrne, before diving under the posts at the Aviva Stadium. It had shades of Brian O’Driscoll’s mazy run at Twickenham 21 years ago. Funnily enough, the final scorelines - 50-18 and 50-17 - were a point apart.

For now, that is where the comparisons abruptly end. If Garbisi could be surrounded by like-minded souls, Franco Smith’s team has a chance of breaking the ugliest losing streak professional rugby has ever known. If not, the kid will be forced to shine on the back foot.

Italy needs him to be Diego Dominguez and Roberto Baggio rolled into one untouchable number 10. No pressure. Seriously, no pressure. Nobody expects them to rise above 21 seasons littered with false dawns.

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