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Rugby World Cup: Once a threat, Italy now well past their best

By Michael Sadlier

It is hard to avoid the notion that an era is rapidly drawing to a close for Italian rugby.

If, as is widely expected, they bow out of the World Cup tomorrow at London's Olympic Stadium then things will change for the Azzurri and, frankly, it is hard to see how, or when, they will be getting a whole lot better.

And it's not just that their iconic leader Sergio Parisse is likely to be playing in his last World Cup.

This is also the final tournament and perhaps even the last hurrahs for other key players Martin Castrogiovanni, Alessandro Massi, Leonardo Ghiraldini and, of course, Mauro Bergamasco who is, astonishingly, playing in his fifth World Cup.

A lot has been made of how some of the second tier teams have upped their levels of competitiveness.

It's not just all about Japan's stirring win over South Africa, because Canada and Fiji have made favourable impressions while Romania have battled away too.

Fair enough, but maybe more concern should be shown to the situation with Italy. The old guard is stepping down, but what of the new? The Italians just seem caught in the doldrums somewhere between the upper echelons of the game and those so-called lesser nations where World Rugby is so keen to be seen spreading their largesse.

There are many problems and issues to be faced regarding the future composition of the senior side but the most pressing concern facing the Azzurri is whether they will have anything left after tomorrow - both in playing personnel and morale - to see off Romania in next weekend's final pool game.

The intention is to sign off with a convincing win rather than the lacklustre showing they put up to shade it over Canada. Mind you, unless they can somehow put it up to Ireland - and find them as insipid as that March day back in the 2013 Six Nations when they took their scalp in Rome - it's quite possible the Azzurri will limp out of the tournament as the sick men of Europe.

And coach Jacques Brunel's imminent departure after the World Cup is hardly conducive for morale as a 'dead coach walking' is never going to inspire the right atmosphere in the camp.

It gets worse though. While on the subject of squad attitude, along came the players' strike over bonus payments, the net result of which was that the team lost a week of training and conditioning while the situation was sorted out.

Anyway, tomorrow feels like a last shot for the Azzurri.

You can expect the Italians to up their game considerably against Ireland, especially with Parisse there to lead the charge, but it still isn't likely to be enough to stage another World Cup upset and come Sunday evening an era's end will be that bit closer.

Belfast Telegraph


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