by Brendan Cole
The sense that Italy missed a chance to make a real stride forward in last year’s RBS 6 Nations is hard to escape.
Nick Mallet’s men experimented – to disastrous effect – against England and the Mauro Bergamasco-at-scrum-half incident will go down in tournament legend. They would, obviously, have done better to play a specialist nine and might even have troubled England that day had they done so. Italy also stayed with Ireland for a half, and finished within five points of Wales but overall, it was a disappointing campaign.
The problems that prompted the Bergamasco move are still in evidence: Italy are still short of quality at half-back and still struggle to field 15 players of the required calibre, though they have relatively abundant talent in certain areas.
Unfortunately for the Azzurri, they will also have to line out without talismanic leader Sergio Parisse, who misses the entire tournament with a serious knee injury. It's a huge loss: no team in this tournament has derived quite so much from the individual excellence and inspirational leadership of one player quite so much as the Italians have from the big number eight.
So, despite a couple of heartening performances against second string Southern Hemisphere sides in November, it looks like being a tough year.
The gameplan seems likely to be even more basic than usual with Nick Mallett emphasising front-five grind and defence in the run-up to this tournament.
Saturday’s opener at Croke Park will more than likely see them take the field in bloody-minded mode and Ireland’s lineout and scrum will need to be prepared to battle hard. Across the field, this fixture will be a test of Ireland's bravery.
Italy may find themselves sailing close to the disciplinary wind again – recall Rob Kearney getting flattened by an Andrea Masi high tackle in the opening minutes of last season’s encounter – to maintain their intimidation factor and stay competitive. On the technical side, the Italian scrum could also make it a difficult day.
In behind, Craig Gower is Italy's likely selection at 10 and the former Australian Rugby League international and State of Origin player - who began his career as a League hooker - brings a certain skill level and competence. Unlike the majority Italian number 10s of the past, he is not shy of the physical stuff either and will lead up the line well in defence.
Italy also have some 'oomph' in the centres, where Gonzalo Garcia can offer penetration and attitude but needs to keep a suspect temperament in check, while Mirco Bergamasco is capable of galloping through gaps when chances present themselves.
But the approach that saw Ireland battle for 40 minutes before breaking free in the final quarter last year should yield dividends again: hard running, a willingness to offload and aggressive defence can still crack the Italian nut.
Better sides will also find it relatively easy to target the Italian weak points in the defensive line - running at Paul Griffen yielded dividends in match after match last year and though he won't be wearing the nine jersey this time around, sharp-eyed attackers will have their eye out for similar chances.
The impact of Peter Stringer’s introduction on Ireland’s tempo last season is also worth remembering. Italy will struggle against any side that has the fitness and discipline to keep possession and keep crashing it up.
Aside from the opener against Ireland - and Italy do traditionally provide a stiff opening-day test - the game against Scotland will go a long way towards defining the Azzurri's tournament.
Last season saw them run ragged at Murrayfield and with Scotland having kicked on under Andy Robinson, Italy are looking at a second wooden spoon in a row.
Style: Italy don’t have the handling skills or speed to really bring their wings into the game so a fairly narrow attack with plenty of kicking will likely be their lot. They are usually a nasty day out for any opposing group of forwards.
If they can get some intensity and put opposition defences on the back foot, they do generate passion and pressure in attack though even then, the Italians struggle to score points.
Three To Watch: Craig Gower is an interesting pick at 10 while prop forward Martin Castrogiovanni is always a lightning rod for attention in this tournament: the bigger the game, the more he gets up for it. With Parisse out, Mauro Bergamasco is the key back rower and will need to give his forwards leadership.
Will Be Missed: Parisse is a huge loss not only to Italy, but to the tournament as a whole.
Good Year/Bad Year?: A good year will see Italy stay within 20 points of the big guns; for them that tends to be Ireland, France and England. They would then beat Scotland and really get among Wales, perhaps having a chance of a second victory. A bad year - which looks likely - will see them wooden-spooned with a couple of big defeats thrown in.
Fantasy Rugby Must Haves: ‘Castro’ can get over the try line – not too many props you can say that about. Mirco Bergamasco can also score the odd five-pointer.