On 28 February 2015, Italy sealed a late win over Scotland at Murrayfield with a late penalty try, but little did they know that that would be their final taste of victory in the Six Nations for seven years. Since then, the team have entered a steep decline and struggled against the other five nations, attracting questions about their future in the Championship. However, something really special happened in 2022, with the Azzurri sparking back into life and bringing their 36-game losing streak in the Championship to an end.
This tactical analysis will look at what has changed in their performance level, including how head coach Kieran Crowley has gone back to basics and focused on solid defensive work, accurate ball movement and a basic desire to play, all three of which were vital to their win last weekend in Cardiff. We will use examples from that game throughout this analysis to illustrate their improvements, as well as highlighting a couple of areas where they need to keep working in order to continue that progression.
At the breakdown
Perhaps the best place to start is at the breakdown, as Italy have in recent years been accused of laziness during games. However, as this section will show, they have been more awake to different situations this year and played much more on the front foot, enabling them to punish their opponents’ mistakes.
This is best shown through their ability to win turnovers against Wales, with loosehead prop Danilo Fischetti getting over Wales forward Seb Davies here and securing a penalty for his team. On another occasion, hooker Giacomo Nicotera also earnt his team a kick at the posts, with Wales constantly slow to form the ruck and subsequently losing out. Therefore, securing possession early when Wales’ attack stalled was a key aspect of Italy’s tactics, and this is something that they have clearly worked on during training.
It is worth pointing out in relation to this that their number 8, Toa Halafihi, was joint-top of the charts for turnovers won during the Championship (six), along with France’s Gregory Alldritt and England duo Alex Dombrandt and Maro Itoje, so winning more balls on the ground is a key indicator of their newfound confidence.
In the second half, Italy have in the past tended to let up and allow their opponents to steamroller their way to a cricket score. However, in this tournament, that didn’t seem to be the case, with a new resilience helping them to remain competitive for the full 80 minutes during the majority of this year’s games. As a result, they were a handful for England in Round 2, scored two excellent tries against Scotland after half-time on the penultimate weekend, and pressed Wales well in this match too.
That last point is shown in this image, with Bath’s Taulupe Faletau gathering the kick from Italy captain Michele Lamaro in his own 22. However, Fischetti has led the charge up the field and ends up winning the penalty through winger Josh Adams sealing off the contest. This is a very different Italy to the one we have become used to, because they kept their opponents thinking and didn’t allow them the usual time and space to plan their moves, and the home side looked lost and disorganised as a result.
In open play
In open play, the Azzurri were just as good, with a mix of good pace and strength when defending, and this is another reason that they have been much tougher to play against this year.
When out of possession, there was a big emphasis on teamwork, with three Italian players packed together here and looking to prevent Cardiff flanker Josh Navidi from breaking through. It is common knowledge that Navidi is one of the best ball-carriers in the world, and normally he would look to use his power to force his way through the defensive line in these situations. His decision to pass to lock Adam Beard therefore raised a few eyebrows, but it was perhaps a reflection of the pressure that Wales were being put under by Italy.
This was further highlighted by the lack of quality in his pass, as poor timing meant that Beard couldn’t gather the ball before colliding with the two Italian second rows, Benetton’s Federico Ruzza and Newcastle Falcons’ Marco Fuser, with Ruzza tapping the loose ball backwards and centre Ignacio Brex clearing his lines. Ruzza was one of the most important players in the Italian team, winning 28 lineouts and topping that leaderboard, so his aerial abilities are well-known.
This strong defensive work has not been as present in the last few years, and Crowley deserves credit for giving his players back their self-belief, and it was noticeable that they were coming forward to make tackles and taking time away from their opponents, leading to errors such as this pass.
This excellent defensive work ensured that they were still in the game as it entered its closing stages, even with Wales’ late try through Adams seemingly sealing an unlikely win for the home side. However, because of the confidence that we have highlighted throughout this analysis so far, they maintained that desire and were rewarded in the dying minutes when exciting young full-back Ange Capuozzo broke through two tackle attempts and set up Edoardo Padovani, whose try was successfully converted by Montpellier fly-half Paolo Garbisi.
Whilst this is just one step, the unbridled joy on their faces made it feel as if they had won the World Cup, and this passion and fight is why it certainly looks like the Italy of old might finally be on its way back.
Areas to keep working on
However, whilst we have praised Italy throughout this scout report, we did also mention at the start that there are a few areas where they still need to improve, and these are the things that will limit their progression if left unaddressed.
The biggest issue, and something that has been a constant of recent years, is their occasional lapse in concentration when defending. In the penultimate round, Scotland flanker Rory Darge managed to score through a sizeable gap in the Italian ranks, and this try from Ospreys centre Owen Watkin was almost a carbon copy, highlighting the problem.
In this case, it is the tighthead prop, Pietro Ceccarelli, who was at fault. The run by Wales tighthead Dillon Lewis has taken Fischetti’s attention away from the ball, whilst Nicotera is unable to move behind him and cover the space, because Faletau’s clever delayed pass to Watkin has forced the hooker to commit to the Wales back rower. Therefore, Ceccarelli has to step across and cover the space, but was on the back foot and consequently unable to react in time, with the red arrow illustrating Watkin’s easy route through to the line.
This try was the culmination of seven phases of play, with Wales finding the door shut by Italy each time they pushed forward. However, it was this one moment when they switched off that undid all of that good work, and this is what the Azzurri now need to look at in order to continue their overall improvement.
Italy can also improve their decision-making, as there were occasions when they failed to take their opportunities and yet should have done. In this case, winger Monty Ioane has made a great run towards the Welsh try line, with flanker and Benetton teammate Giovanni Pettinelli matching his run and providing him with a good passing option. However, Ioane doesn’t make the pass and instead opts to finish the move off on his own, allowing Adams to come across and make a fantastic tackle.
Whilst we need to congratulate the Cardiff winger, we also need to assess if Italy would have scored with a pass into Pettinelli, and the answer to that is almost certainly yes. Therefore, there are occasions when Italy don’t have enough awareness or are perhaps too selfish, and these small misjudgements could cost them on another day.
Key players for the future
We have looked at a lot of tactical points in this article, but we will finish by highlighting some of the key players for Italy to now build their team around.
It is hard to believe that, had hooker Gianmarco Lucchesi not suffered a season-ending injury and Hame Faiva not been sent off, both against Ireland, we would not have been introduced to Giacomo Nicotera during the tournament. However, his tenaciousness to win the ball and desire to make the most of his opportunity was key to Italy’s improved form against Scotland and Wales, and he is undoubtedly a powerful front row player who will be a key part of the squad going forwards.
When flanker Michele Lamaro was selected as the new captain, following the decision to leave hooker and previous skipper Luca Bigi out of the initial squad, there were a few questions. However, the 23-year-old has more than answered his critics, showing passion and leadership, and he was arguably one of the most underrated players in the Championship, having made the most tackles out of anyone (86). You only have to look at the pride with which he belts out his national anthem before each game to recognise how fired up he is every time he steps foot on the field, and that pride has seeped into his teammates too.
At the back of the team, both Ange Capuozzo and Monty Ioane are current stars of Italian rugby, and we have already mentioned how exciting Capuozzo is. However, Ioane was their one consistent threat throughout the tournament, and always looked dangerous whenever he went forward. He made 501 metres and registered 51 carries during this year’s Championship, putting him second and fourth on those charts, and Wales in particular looked all over the place every time he got up the pitch. Add in Padovani, who played on the wing against Wales but was a full-back for the other four games, and Italy have a really impressive back line who offer a lot when they are in possession.
In conclusion, this tactical analysis has sought to dissect Italy’s performances towards the end of the 2022 Six Nations, identifying where they have stepped up and where they can continue to improve. It has taken time to see Italy’s hard work on the training ground translate into good matchday performances, but there have been moments in each of their games that they can take positives from, and that is the key thing. The Italian fans can seemingly have hope again, and the many years of internal hurt and external criticism might finally, finally be drawing to an end.