By Brendan Cole
Italy have picked off several wins over big nations over the last few years, but only when the opposition is in the grip of a turbulent period.
Improvements by the rest and a decline in their own level caused by injuries in some key areas could see them struggle to repeat those feats this time around.
The fixture list also is against the Italians in 2014. Ireland, France and Wales, who have all proved vulnerable over the last few years, meet the Italians on home soil.
England, who are particularly resistant to the Italian style, will travel to Rome along with Scotland.
And while the latter clash with Scotland will be keenly contested and could well see Italy secure their 12th win in the tournament, big scalps are likely to prove evasive.
Italy’s own form has been raised as a concern as well.
However, their struggles on hard pitches against Samoa and South Africa in South Africa this summer were not particularly surprising. The heavy November defeat to an Australia side that was underrated by most in the Northern hemisphere was also in keeping with the formbook.
It would also be a mistake to read too much into Italy’s narrow win over a poorly organised Fijian touring side, or their defeat to Argentina, in the same window. Suffice to say the Azzuri did not bring their ‘A’ game into either encounter.
That is not usually a problem for them in this tournament, at least not in the early rounds. They are usually at their best in this tournament.
Even so, there are headwinds. Despite them, head coach Jacques Brunel has said that it is Italy’s intention to continue to attempt to pursue a more open style.
That may prove difficult as Andrea Masi and Gonzalo Canale, two of Italy’s more reliable and intelligent performers, are absent due to injury with only Masi having an outside chance of being available in the later stages. The excellent wing Giovanbattista Venditti will also miss the opening two rounds.
In the pack, the issue is not so much personnel as the question of whether those who have played with such credit in past years have another big campaign in them. There is a shortage of quality young players coming through to challenge the familiar names, particularly in the back row.
On the plus side, the return of Mirco Bergamasco after a 14-month absence means that the backline will have at least one runner capable of creating forward momentum. The 30-year-old plays his club rugby with Rovigo in the Italian league these days, but he has a track record of performing well in this competition and brings passion and emotion to the party.
One half of the perennial half-back dilemma has also been resolved with Eduardo Gori a capable performer at scrum-half.
But a suitable out-half partner has yet to emerge.
The Argentine-born Luciano Orquero orchestrates things with a certain old-school panache when on song and suits the Italian style well. But the Italians yearn for a more modern type. Tommaso Allan – formerly a Scotland under-20 and with a southern hemisphere rugby education – has the physical attributes and also could be the solution.
As has been the pattern for the last few years, both will probably get opportunities. As ever, the likelihood is that Sergio Parisse will continue to be Italy’s best playmaker. The 30-year-old number eight’s freakish ability to magically create opportunity from scraps of possession will, along with ‘Brunel-cam’, be one of the main reasons to tune in for Italy matches.
Despite those caveats, the sense that their durable pack is finally starting to show its age, along with that unfavourable fixture list, suggests that a win over Scotland is the best they can manage this time around, and even that may be beyond them.