History: Italy were only added to the Six Nations in 2000 but since then they have achieved a string of notable results, mainly against Wales and Scotland. Ireland have not yet been beaten but with Italy always improving the chance of it happening goes up each year; among other results, two wins over Ireland in the late 90s established Italy's credentials.

Coach: Nick Mallet. Mallet coached a hugely successful South African side to 17 consecutive Test victories in 1997 and '98 and also brought two Bouclier De Brennus (French Titles) to Stade Francais in 2003 and 2004. Almost as impressive as his record is his articulacy and insight. Mallet is a strong advocate for basic steps such as getting realistic top level games for Italian clubs or regions at Heineken Cup and Magners League level. On the field, he has recognised that Italy need to innovate to compete and touted selecting Mauro Bergamasco at scrum-half heading into this competition.

Captain: Sergio Parisse. Quite simply one of the two best forwards in the world – with Ritchie McCaw the competition – Parisse is also a proud Italian and a fine leader. Capable of kicking, running and passing like a back he also has phenomenal skills in contact. Backing it all up is fantastic size and strength. Always a pleasure to watch. (A Bergamasco/Parisse half-back pariring would really put the cat among the pigeons, Nick?)

Key Men: Mauro Bergamasca, Mirco Bergamasco

The brothers Bergamasco, a pair of strapping lads with big lung capacities, have driven Italy's biggest performances for five years or so now and both are back for more this year. Openside wing-forward Mauro has a few extra tricks up his sleeve, though he has served the odd ban for taking the 'dark arts' a little too far, while Mirco brings energy and drive to the Italian midfield. He arguably lacks a little finesse. Aside from that, Italy will have a tough scrum, and cmpetent and motivated outside backs - the likes of Gonzalo Canale and Kaine Robertson – who often over-perform in Azurri blue.

Playing Style: As usual, Italy will innovate. They have pioneered a number of tricks and ruses down the years – including the 'non-engage' one man tackle maul and the American football style 'winger to winger' backfield switch. Aside from the odd trick play, they have the pack to give anyone a problem and in the right circumstances can even get the upper hand against the likes of Ireland and Wales – as they did for stretches last year. It is wider out that innovation and ruses become even more necessary as there is a dearth of talent. Sometimes, they click magically though, and with Mallet calling the shots that may happen a little more often.

Prediction: Very hard to say how Italy will do as they can give anyone a game home or away in the right circumstances but are also wide open to drubbings on off days. Twickenham doesn't look a great venue for them on day one, and France and Ireland are less often troubled than Scotland and Wales. It is near certain they will give someone a fright, and possibly a beating, but a last place finish is the most likely.

Brendan Cole