With the 2023 men’s Six Nations over, OptaJonny takes a look at how a reinvigorated Italy have progressed in recent months, assessing their strengths and star players ahead of the 2023 Rugby World Cup.
Although Italy picked up an eighth consecutive wooden spoon (18th in total), their performances on the pitch in the 2023 Six Nations were vastly improved on previous campaigns. Momentum from beating Wales in the 2022 edition, followed by subsequent wins over Portugal, Romania, Samoa and most significantly Australia, was evident as they provided a stern test for all their opponents in the Championship.
Their average result margin this year was -12, their best in 10 years (-7.2 in 2013) and one big positive was their ability to hang on in the second half and not be blown away. In fact, the Azzurri ‘won’ the second half in two of their matches (vs. England & Wales) and drew another (vs. France), proving their resilience and fitness.
Quick ruck speed was crucial to Italy’s momentum in attack – their average of 3.02s per ruck was the fastest of any side. This allowed them to enjoy plenty of possession (52%, second most) and subsequently attack more freely. They moved the ball into open field more often than any other side (92%) and also tried ambitious attacks from deep, going wide with 16% of their possessions in their own half, more often than any other team.
It could be suggested that this bravery cost them in certain situations and a more patient build up could be more efficient, but it was definitely entertaining to watch. Another example of this confidence could be seen in their 22m zone exit strategy, deciding to carry out of danger more often (56%) than any other team.
Italy’s back row definitely gave them a lift in attack. As a unit their tackle evasion rate of 21% was superior to any other team. They defended strongly too, with no squad making more dominant tackles than them (55). This combination of ambitious attack and resolute defence bodes well for yet more development as contenders.
Five Players to Watch
Italy have always had world class players at their disposal but there is now the depth in the squad to share the burden of responsibility that previous players like Sergio Parisse had to shoulder single-handedly. Here we pick out five of the best, but we easily could have included more, like Pierre Bruno, Danilo Fischetti, Juan Ignacio Brex or Jake Polledri.
In Paolo Garbisi the Azzurri have developed a real maestro who can marshal the talented players around him and get the team moving forward. In the 2023 Six Nations, the Italian fly-half made more passes that led to a line break per 80 minutes than any other player, a ranking that team-mate Juan Ignacio Brex also featured on. Keep an eye out for his brother Alessandro in the No. 9 shirt too, he’ll be pushing Stephen Varney hard for a spot at the RWC.
It’s been just over a year since Ange Capuozzo burst onto the scene for Italy, but one World Rugby Breakthrough Player of the Year award and a try assist of the decade contender later, it’s fair to say that he’s taken to Test rugby like an agile duck to water.
Capuozo has beaten 6.3 opposition defenders per 80 minutes since the start of last year’s Six Nations, the best average of any player to have played at least 80 minutes of rugby in that time, with Scotland’s Duhan van der Merwe the only other player to have beaten 5+ defenders (5.5).
Lorenzo Cannone has been on the international scene for an even shorter period of time than Capuozzo, having only made his Test debut last October (vs. Samoa). However, much like Ange, he’s quickly cemented himself as a key cog in Kieran Crowley’s side.
Cannone had the highest tackle evasion rate of any number eight to make 10+ carries in this year’s Six Nations (26%) and as a result, beat more defenders than any other eight (11). Crucially though, he was equally efficient when he was brought to ground, also registering the highest carry dominance rate of any eight with 10+ carries in 2023 (43%).
Unlike Capuozzo and Cannone, Sebastian Negri is very much a stalwart of this Italian team, having amassed 45 caps since making his Test debut whilst still in college and starting in 14 of Italy’s last 18 Six Nations fixtures.
One trait he does share with Cannone though is his propensity to carry the ball forward, being the only flanker to amass 50+ carries (58) and 10+ defenders beaten (11) in this year’s Six Nations – he also made two line breaks in the Championship, the joint-most of any flanker, alongside World Rugby Player of the Year Josh van der Flier.
Another exciting talent in the Italian backline is Tommaso Menoncello. The 20-year-old Benetton star burst onto the international scene in 2022 and at the 2023 Six Nations, he confirmed his status as an elite talent. Having already started on both wings and in both centre spots, Menoncello is a versatile player and will be a big asset in a World Cup campaign.
But it’s in the midfield where he is most at home.
Across his two appearances at centre in the 2023 Six Nations (vs. Ireland & Wales) he completed all 20 of his tackles and was the only centre in the Championship to make more than five hits without missing one. He also averaged 62 metres gained per 80 minutes, the best rate of any centre. This combination of hard-hitting and productive ball-carrying with fearless defence belies the youthful stage of his career, and hints at the prospect of a long Test career.
Italy face the unenviable challenge of playing New Zealand and France at the 2023 Rugby World Cup, two of the best teams on the planet. They’ve never beaten the All Blacks, and have an average losing margin of almost 50 points (48) across their 15 clashes. A narrow defeat against Les Bleus (24-29) in this Championship however will give them a glimmer of hope of upsetting the hosts in their final game and sneaking out of a devilish pool. With an abundance of talent emerging, and their U20s side blossoming too, the Azzurri are most definitely on the up and will be a force to be reckoned with over the coming years.