Old familiar faces with a sprinkling of new the likely recipe for Italian coach Jacques Brunel

Search for the right balance and an improvement in offensive efficiency a must for Italy

You have to admire Warren Gatland’s chutzpah. No doubt he rubs up some people the wrong way, but this, of course, is also part of the plan. Unveiling his opening hand for the Six Nations on a Monday morning is a clear statement of strength as well as intent prior to hosting England at the Millennium Stadium on Friday. It would be duller without him.

That he has only made two changes to a side that beat South Africa – and restoring George North and Richard Hibbard – shows how relatively settled Wales are compared to everyone else.

The same is not true for Joe Schmidt and Jacques Brunel, who will both announce their starting line-ups for Saturday's game at the Stadio Olimpico on Thursday. In Schmidt's case the additional time provides an opportunity to assess the well-being of several players with varying degrees of rustiness; Cian Healy, Jack McGrath, Mike Ross, Iain Henderson, Seán O'Brien and Conor Murray, as well as the absence of Johnny Sexton for this opener.

For his part Brunel, who will guide Italy in his fourth and final Six Nations before returning to French club rugby after the 2015 World Cup, will assemble many of the old familiar faces, along with a sprinkling of relatively new blood.


Their improved November suggested the Azzurri will return to the levels of two years ago – when they book- ended their Six Nations with home wins over France and Ireland to finish fourth – as opposed to last season when they were whitewashed for the first time since 2009 and fifth time overall, so collecting their 10th wooden spoon.


Unluckily losing to a last-ditch

Duncan Weir

drop goal against Scotland knocked the stuffing out of them before Ireland and England ran up big scores in boosting their points differences. But they were severely handicapped by the back injury which restricted inspirational captain Sergio Parisse, preventing him from training throughout the tournament or playing against Ireland at the Aviva, when Italy were also undermined by the loss early on of

Martin Castrogiovanni


An opening 24-13 win against Samoa in Ascoli last November ended a nine- match losing run over the previous 12 months, after which Italy should have beaten Argentina (losing 20-18) before extending South Africa to a 22-6 win after trailing 8-6 until almost the hour mark, before a converted last minute try distorted the scoreline.

That series marked an upturn in performance levels for the Azzurri – albeit it could be said that all of their Six Nations rivals made strides forward in the autumn. “We are still in search of the right balance and we definitely must improve our offensive efficiency,” Brunel said, after his side scored just two tries in the autumn, both against Samoa.

With centres Gonzalo Canale, Gonzalo Garcia and Alberto Sgarbi all missing, Brunel is expected to stick with the young and inexperienced Treviso midfield of Michele Campagnaro and Luca Morisi in November. There is the option of Andrea Masi at centre, but the Wasps player will most likely start the Six Nations as he did throughout the autumn, between Luke McLean and Leonardo Sarto on the wings.

The likelihood therefore is that Brunel will again pair Edoardo Gori and Kelly Haimona at half-back, which would be a reprise of the same backline which started all three November matches. Haimona, the 26-year-old from Rotarua, is the latest perennial great hope for Italy's problematic number 10 position, having qualified through residency to make his first three starts for the Azzurri in November when scoring 35 points. With Luciano Orquera injured, the previous great hope, Tomasso Allen, who recently sought to relaunch his career with a move from Perpignan to Bristol, is back in the squad.



Michele Rizzo


Lorenzo Cittadini

are also sidelined, leaving Italy a little thin in terms of experienced front-row back-up. The starting trio will most likely be the same as that which faced Ireland last year, namely

Alessandro De Marchi


Leonardo Ghiraldini

and Castrogiovanni. The long-haired, 33-year-old veteran has not started many games for Toulon this season and there must be a doubt as to whether Castrogiovanni can last beyond the 50 or 60 minute mark in Test rugby, although he is always inspired when wearing the blue.

The loss of Quintin Geldenhuys, whom Joe Schmidt identified as one of the players of last year's tournament, is a significant blow, and makes it likely that Brunel will restore the experience of 34-year-old Marco Bortolami alongside Josh Furno. Parisse, playing as well if not better than ever, may be flanked by Alessandro Zanni and Francesco Minto, with another veteran, 35-year-old Mauro Bergamasco, possibly on the bench.

The Italian Federation’s move to the Stadio Olimpico two seasons ago has been vindicated, with Italy winning three of their seven Six Nations matches at the venue. Off the pitch, it has also been a huge success.

Although it has been a very dry winter, which should mean the pitch is in ideal condition, and Italians tend to earmark the March games (against France and Wales) in warmer weather, the Federation has forecast an attendance on Saturday in excess of 60,000.

With new fans increasingly drawn to games there, this has made Six Nations weekends major boons for the economy at a time when Italian sport is bidding to make their beautiful capital city home to the Ryder Cup in 2022, the 2023 Rugby World Cup, the Olympic Games in 2024, and finally the Catholic Jubilee in 2025.

Rome should at least be assured of hosting the latter. gthornley@irishtimes.com