I often feel like a broken record when writing about Italy and trying finding a new way to describe second half capitulation after second half capitulation is becoming increasingly difficult.
When I woke up on Saturday morning, I felt that Italy might actually be in with a chance of winning. Were my spidey senses totally out of kilter?
I just felt that, despite the final score, they would have taken a huge amount from their encounter with England a fortnight ago. Add to that the fact that France had endured a pretty dismal record away from home of late and there was more than a glimmer of hope. The final piece of the jigsaw in my prediction, was that Italy have regularly ‘done a number’ on France and I am certain that they felt that it was their chance to record a first victory in this year’s championship.
It all started so well for the Azzuri, with their talismanic captain Parisse taking a great line to be on the end of Canna’s beautiful offload to score. I was even more convinced that it might be their day.
It was only 17 minutes later that Fickou ghosted through the Italian midfield to score a superb individual try. If you take a closer look at Italy’s defensive line leading to this score(see below) you can see how their set up was always going to invite a player of Fickou’s ability to attack it. I am sure his eyes lit up when he received the ball and saw two props side by side in the midfield and the N°8 in no man’s land and not squared up. A quick chase of his feet, a ludicrous dummy and he was through. A single example of the continual ineffectiveness of the defence throughout the match.
That having been said, at only 11-19 down at half time Italy were not out of it, or were they?
In their second half performances they have conceded 120 points and only scored 12. They were in effect doomed from the minute they jogged back to the changing rooms – if statistics bear any relation to reality.
You can argue all you like that Bronzini was unlucky to have a try disallowed in the 58th minute – a potentially critical moment that might have change the complexity of the game and at the time that Italy usually start falling off the pace. The truth is, however, that they were effectively blown away in the second period.
The only team that the scoreline – 18-40 – flattered was the Azzuri as they scored a try with the last play of the match to add to their first half total.
O’Shea felt that they played well in the first half, but was quick to add that their defence was stressed later in the game and that the scrum was always under pressure. Fair assessment, but for him then to say that “I saw a group of players playing with a lot of heart” sums it all up to me. 1st tier rugby, or any level of professional or semi professional rugby for that matter, is not about ‘heart’ (although you do need to have it). It is all about execution of the basic skills under pressure and at pace, understanding the systems you are playing within and having the ability to understand and nullify whatever the opposition are doing.
This Italian team failed to do just that for large periods of the game. Their defence was torn apart in the midfield and wider channels by Fickou, Vakatawa and Nakataci in particular, the passing was lacking in accuracy, their kick off strategy was poor and I was somewhat at a loss to see what the game plan was.
The starkest of statistics for the game was their tacking effectiveness. If any team, at any level, has a tackle success rate of a mere 51% then they do not deserve to be on the winning side. For an international team, it is simply unacceptable. Venter must be wondering what he can do to improve this aspect of the team, or even if he can.
This was the 11th consecutive loss in the 6 Nations for Italy and the calls for a review of relegation and promotion is not going to go away anytime soon if they continue to play like this. Constant capitulation to make even the most ardent of supporters question their loyalty will only make others, more convinced that something needs to change.
“The road is long but I see some potential. It’s only the beginning, but we have to keep at it” says O’Shea. Hardly a ringing endorsement of where he sees his team at the moment. If he is saying this publically, what on earth must he be thinking in private?
The road ahead is most definitely a long one.