When the Rugby World Cup Pools were announced back in May 2017 in Kyoto, few pundits were expecting Italy to be still alive in the tournament at the beginning of October 2019. Rightly so.
With a combined five RWC titles (out of eight editions) between New Zealand (3) and South Africa (2), the No.1 and 3 in the World Rugby Rankings at that time, Azzurri’s chance to make history by earning their first-ever ticket to the quarter-finals appeared close to zero.
Two years and almost six months later and two days from the key clash against the Springboks, chances are still slim for Conor O’Shea’s troops – but after two rounds of games, the Italians find themselves in the best spot to enjoy the challenge.
Italy’s debut was far from stellar as they outscored Namibia at the end of 80 minutes of poor, uncomfortable and self-destructive rugby.
Yet Sergio Parisse and his teammates managed to cross the whitewash seven times to record the most points scored out of all of the first round of games (47 points).
They then turned on the style a few days later with a dominant 48-7 display against Canada that got the 2019 contingent straight into the history books for the highest margin win of all time for Italians at the Rugby World Cup (and their best offensive record ever in the competition).
In fact, the benefit that international professional environment has brought to Italian rugby has never been much more evident than during this Rugby World Cup edition.
The chance to play week-in week-out against some of the best organisations in the world has increased Italy’s competence both on and off the field, mainly by encouraging the two professional clubs in the country (Benetton and Zebre) to raise their standard to keep the pressure of the season-over-season increasing competition off.
New training protocols and a much more professional approach has been introduced nationally at the elite level as some of the standard procedures adopted by every Guinness PRO14 club finally broke through, embraced by a brand new generation of managers. The Guinness PRO14 played a huge part in this crucial turnaround in rugby mentality and renewed vision.
At international level, after four years pushing the boundaries of selections, looking 360 degrees for fresh blood and a whole new group of young talented professional players, Italians completed what may well be recorded as the best RWC preparation ever in their 30-year competition history.
In Japan, Italy have so far expressed a man management ability never shown before by any Azzurri outfit in the past: player rotation, playing time and resting programme.
Italy had one and only one advantage over their competitors: their schedule. They did what they had to – and that’s huge news for a country that wasted chances for futile reasons in the past.
We all still have in mind the 2007 situation, when the internal turmoil squandered what has still to be considered the biggest opportunity to get through the Pool stages ever.
Maturity. That’s the key word for O’Shea tenure at the helm of the Azzurri. No matter what will happen against South Africa, the Italians for the first time, did what they had to do and placed themselves one game from the knockout stages with a squad perfectly fit and properly rested. Simply stunning for a country that barely knows the meaning of ‘planning’.
Would that be enough to overcome the Everest in green and gold? Probably not. But with the progress made during the last four years both in Guinness PRO14 and at the juniors international level, World Rugby has finally regained a competitor that was lost.
And that’s good news for the future of the game.