Peter Bills completes his brief on the RBS Six Nations contenders, with a look at Ireland’s opponents, Italy
Italian coach Nick Mallett insists no decision has yet been made on his future after the Rugby World Cup this year.
Meanwhile, Perpignan coach Jacques Brunel insists he was made an offer by the Italian Federation that, as he says, “at my age, I could not refuse”.
Thus, Mallett will this week lead Italy into a Six Nations campaign for almost certainly the last time. Just a bit unfortunate if no-one got around to putting him in the picture.
But the question is, have Italy moved forward significantly under Mallett? Have they progressed from the nation that joined the tournament in 2000 and straightaway lowered Scotland’s colours in that memorable win in Rome?
Since then, they have also beaten Wales, but these have been rare, one-off triumphs. They have never beaten Ireland, England or France in the tournament and still don’t look anywhere near doing so.
But is that Mallett’s fault? I don’t believe so. The former South African coach has gone as far as he probably can with this team. But his protestations that he’d like to stay on after the World Cup this year are likely to founder for two reasons.
Firstly, the Italian Federation continues to be in love with the image of a French coach. And secondly, Mallett is criticised in some Italian circles for his alleged negativity. His talk of progress, just because Italy used to lose by 33 points to a certain nation but have now trimmed the margin of defeat to 15 or 16, doesn’t wash with Italians.
In a land where soccer coaches are fired after a few poor results, a similar scenario looks likely to account for Mallett later this year.
The difficulty is, Italy have fundamental weaknesses at half-back and have had ever since their renowned Diego Dominguez/Alessandro Troncon partnership ended. They have never really replaced either, and modern-day rugby, especially at international level, cannot be played successfully without a decent half-back pairing.
If, as a consequence, results have been generally disappointing for an impatient Italian Rugby Federation, the blame can hardly be laid at the coach’s door. He can only do his best with the personnel he is given and Italy are still well short of top-quality players.
The Italians start at home against Ireland this weekend and, with typical enthusiasm, will throw everything into the contest. But when push comes to shove, even an ordinary Irish display is likely to be sufficient.
As ever, they will target Scotland and Wales for victories. But one win is probably the zenith of their ambitions.