Time for Italy to step up

Italy is like that screaming teenager who sits at the kids' table at a wedding.

The side has been making steady progress over the past decade, but wants to be part of the big show, be among the elite, drink the real stuff.

That is why this World Cup is a chance for Italy to make a statement - to make a quarterfinal and be seen as a real force.

The team has come a long way since that first game in 1987 when Michael Jones ran all over them on Eden Park and John Kirwan scored that famous try, running through the whole team.

Finally accepted, somewhat reluctantly by some, into the next level and turning the northern hemisphere tournament into the Six Nations in 1999, the Italians have made steady progress since then.

This year they managed to beat the French at home for the first time but still finished bottom of the Six Nations after a disappointing loss in the final game to Scotland.

Much of their hope will revolve around their big No 8 Sergio Parisse, who is one of the best loose forwards in Europe.

A knee injury took him out of much of rugby for 2010 but he appears to be back on form of late, and gives his side so much go-forward from the back.

The side was also looking to former Penrith league halfback Craig Gower to help pilot the team around the paddock.

But after wearing the blue jersey for a couple of seasons, Gower suffered a nasty knee injury and was then discarded by coach Nick Mallett. He has just signed to play rugby league in the United Kingdom.

Mallett speaks the truth about his side after it plays badly and that sometimes finds few friends in the Italian administration.

He is to be replaced after the World Cup by former Perpignan coach Jacques Brunel, and will want to finish his four years in charge of the Italian team with a bang.

Rugby in Italy is actually flourishing and it seems possible that within a few years the side will be a real force. More youngsters are playing the game and playing numbers have grown by about 30%, since the last World Cup in neighbouring France.

The game itself will get a tremendous boost if it makes it through to the quarterfinals and that is likely to come down to the match against the Irish in Dunedin.

Italy has a solid tight five and good loose forwards but lacks a solid pivot. Gower had strands of promise but never really convinced. Veteran Luciano Orquera looms as the candidate to wear the No 10 jersey and he has a reasonably accurate boot.

The Italians still struggle when the game becomes a bit loose, and need to become more disciplined at times.

But, if they can keep their heads and kick their goals, the chance is there for the team to make history by doing what no other Italian side has done.

With their footballing cousins on strike, the rugby players have the ideal opportunity to take the limelight and give the sport a real boost.


Italy: The facts

GENERAL
Capital: Rome
Population: 60 million
Facts
- Since World War 2, Italy has changed its leaders more than the average man changes his pants. Since 1945 there have been 61 governments, with current prime minister Silvio Berlusconi involved in a scandal over payments to young girls to do some naughty things.
- The average Italian eats 27kg of pasta a year and pizzas were revolutionised in Italy when tomatoes were brought to the country in the 16th century. But for many years they were thought to be poisonous, accepted only when peasants in Naples put them in their meals when they were starving.
- The Italian football team won the 1934 and 1938 Fifa World Cups, which were the first two the side had entered after not going to the 1930 event. Any chance of winning the fourth one in 1950 had been scuttled by a plane crash the previous year in which the Torino team, the basis of the Italian side, was killed.

RUGBY
Coach: Nick Mallett.
Captain: No 8 Sergio Parisse.
Previous World Cups: Has been to every World Cup but never gone beyond the group stage. Won two games in both 2003 and 2007 but crucially lost 18-16 to Scotland in 2007, ending the chance to go on to the quarterfinals.
Games: v Australia, Auckland, September 11; v Russia, Nelson, September 20; v USA, Nelson, September 28; v Ireland, October 2, Dunedin.
Players to watch
- Sergio Parisse: The skipper and No 8 has had a bad injury run over the past couple of years but fit and firing is a quality player. Remembered in this country for eye-gouging Isaac Ross in 2009, which led to his banning for eight weeks.
- Andrea Masi: The outside back was first picked to play for his club when aged 16, and first wore the Italian jersey just two years later. Moved to French rugby in 2006 and now plays for Racing Metro in Paris.
- Martin Castrogiovanni: The tough prop has plenty of energy and was once dubbed the best prop in the world. Has a bit of a cult following at his Leicester club and is a top scrummager, although not as mobile around the field.


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