Win in Paris more proof that Zebre are turning the corner

Paul Eddison
13 January 2020

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Even Michael Bradley would admit that 2019 was a difficult year for Zebre.

They had to wait until November for a first victory and started this season by conceding a half-century of points in their first three matches.

And yet over the past month and a half, there is real reason to believe that the Italian side are starting to turn the corner.

They have won four of their last seven matches, including two on the road, while scoring at least 25 points in five of those.

The first of those wins did not say a lot on its own. While a 39-12 win at the Dragons was a fantastic result, it came against a team missing its Welsh internationals because of a match against the Barbarians.

That was followed by splitting two Challenge Cup clashes with Brive, before a pair of defeats in the derbies against Benetton.

Ironically, those two losses say as much about Zebre’s improvement as their victories. The first game was dominated by the men in black, but they were not able to turn it into points, going down 13-8.

A week later, their loss at a sold-out Stadio Monigo was rather more disappointing, losing 36-25 to a Benetton side that had lost Nacho Brex to a first-half red card.

Since then though, a full-strength Toyota Cheetahs side was put to the sword in Parma, before Zebre became the first Italian team to win away to Stade Français.

Following it up at home to Bristol this weekend would be impressive, the Bears have been going full bore in Europe this season.

Regardless of what happens, as we approach the Guinness Six Nations, there is plenty of reason for optimism.

And on the subject of the Six Nations, Zebre provided more members to the Azzurri squad named by Franco Smith today than Benetton – 16 to 15.

That does not mean they are better than Benetton, the festive derbies are proof to the contrary, but it would indicate that Zebre are closing the gap, which can only be good for Italian rugby.

Danilo Fischetti and Michelangelo Biondelli could both make their Test debuts after being named among the three uncapped players in the squad.

Fischetti has long been destined for the top. The loosehead prop was a standout performer at age group level for Italy, and would have made his debut in Japan as an injury call-up only to be denied by Typhoon Hagibis.

Biondelli, meanwhile, has thrived this season and was one of the stars of the show in the win at Stade. A goal-kicking full-back or fly-half, the 20-year-old has got his first opportunities this season and seized them with both hands.

These youngsters have been complemented by some canny imports. Irish second row pair Ian Nagle and Mick Kearney have offered some valuable experience in the second row, likewise English duo Charlie Walker and Jamie Elliott are natural finishers in the backline.

Perhaps the best news for Zebre (and Italy) is Giovanni Licata’s form. Tipped as Sergio Parisse’s long-term successor, Licata got a first taste of international rugby, but missed the cut for the World Cup. This season he has been flying, and he leads the whole of the Guinness PRO14 in terms of carries (116) and offloads (15)

Even with Parisse set to call time on his career, the back row remains Italy’s most competitive position, but on current form, we should see Licata involved at some point in the Six Nations.

Losing Licata and the likes of Fischetti and Biondelli will hurt Zebre during the Six Nations period.

But in the long-term, there are sprouts of optimism starting to emerge at the Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi.

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