For Guinness PRO14 fans, there is plenty to ponder over who will make the cut and what impact they will have at the global showpiece.
Continuing our series, we are breaking down the big decisions facing head coach Conor O’Shea, as well as looking at which Azzurri players could emerge to shine on the biggest stage.
There’s no doubt about it – the size of the challenge that awaits Italy in Japan is a huge one.
Placed in Pool B alongside Namibia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa – the chemistry of O’Shea’s squad is going to have to be spot on if they are to make it to a first quarter-final in their history.
At present, O’Shea is working with a squad of 44 that needs to be whittled to 31 and there is much speculation as to where the former Harlequins coach will make his cuts, given that he’s not been through this process previously.
The trickiest decisions look to be at prop, where he’ll likely have to cut eight to five, and in the back row – where he has plenty of talent but may need to cut from nine to five.
🔵 #RWC2019: ora disponibili i nuovi kit home e alternate
Per affrontare le prossime sfide, #insieme
— Italrugby (@Federugby) July 30, 2019
The key man
The first name that comes to mind when many think of Italy is Sergio Parisse – captain, fearsome back rower, and a fine leader of men.
But the great man is now 35 – 36 in fact by the time the tournament gets underway – the other end of the age spectrum to Matteo Minozzi.
It’s testament to his talents that the flying-full-back, just 23, is being tipped to shine and make the difference for the Azzurri in the Far East, despite hardly playing any rugby last season.
Those bright hopes stem from Minozzi’s magnificent 2018 Guinness Six Nations in which he scored four tries on the trot and was subsequently shortlisted for Player of the Championship.
Given that dazzling dart on to the international scene it was unfortunate that an ACL injury sustained while playing for Zebre curtailed his progression but Minozzi, now with Wasps, is reportedly looking sharp in training.
Occupying the No.15 shirt for much of this year’s Guinness Six Nations, Benetton’s Jayden Hayward impressed and wing Edoardo Padovani struck with three tries.
With Minozzi back in the mix to spice things up there will be much interest in how O’Shea sets up his back three – Mattia Bellini (Zebre), Giulio Bisegni (Zebre) and Angelo Esposito of Benetton are the other men vying for the plane.
With two of the world’s top five in their pool – Italy’s mission statement in Japan is to upset the odds.
New Zealand and South Africa are quite clearly incredibly tough opponents – their high-class 16-16 draw at the weekend the latest example – but then you could also ask the Brave Blossoms about World Cup upsets against South Africa.
The Azzurri will relish the challenge, especially given that a large proportion of their squad is made up from the players of Benetton, who’ve been confounding doubters for the past season in reaching the Guinness PRO14 Final Series.
Half of the 44-man squad hail from Benetton and given the club’s sustained rise in recent seasons you can expect many to make the final cut, and to build their reputations in Japan.
Throw in the fact that Italy’s greatest win under O’Shea came against the Springboks back in 2016, and the Azzurri will head to Japan undaunted about their prospects.
Final squad selection decisions for O’Shea and his team actually don’t look the most fraught among the World Cup squads.
Of course, you never know who might be pulling up trees in training, but lose one hooker, lock, scrum-half and centre and thinks quickly look clearer – uncapped No.2 Engjel Makelara and No.9 Callum Braley seemingly vulnerable.
It’s an altogether different story though in the back row.
The Azzurri selectors are not short of raw talent in this area. Benetton’s Seb Negri is a carrier-and-a-half and goes from strength to strength while clubmate Braam Steyn is versatile, tireless and experienced.
Gloucester’s 23-year-old Jake Polledri has pace to burn and footwork to match, Maxime Mbanda is just as mobile and Parisse is of course there to lead from the front.
That makes five and leaves less-capped men Renato Giammarioli, Marco Lazzaroni, Giovanni Licata and Jimmy Tuivaiti scrapping it out – all have proven their effectiveness in club colours at times.