Guinness Six Nations: Italy Looking To Rebound In 2024
Guinness Six Nations: Italy Looking To Rebound In 2024
Battered for years in the Six Nations, a new coach and some promising youth will be looking to make waves, but Italy still has a long road to any hardware.
It’s an unfortunate truth, but truthful nonetheless: Italy is more often than not the whipping boy in the Six Nations Championship.
Since joining what was the Five Nations field in 2000, the Azzurri have tallied a count of 18 Wooden Spoons — last place — compared to zero titles.
The occasional upset win frequently is sandwiched between long losing stretches, leaving Italy in a near-perpetual state of Six Nations mediocrity and seeing some call for Italy to be removed from the competition entirely for another replacement European country, most notably Georgia.
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Still, promising youth and a new coach has allowed Italy to enter this year’s Six Nations shortly after hitting the reset button, in a way.
To say outright that a new, groundbreaking era of Italian rugby has arrived is a bit of a stretch (for now), but elite rugby nations aren’t made overnight.
For the Azzurri, the journey to consistent relevance in the Six Nations will be a marathon, not a sprint. The first movements made toward Italy’s path to rugby excellence may be seen over the course of the next couple of months.
Here’s a look at Italy’s team ahead of the Six Nations, with the Azzurri scheduled to begin their run in the competition for 2024 against England in Rome on Feb. 3:
Last Time Out
Following a shocking victory against Wales in the final round of the 2022 Six Nations — which snapped a grueling 36-match losing streak in the competition — there was a little bit of optimism for Italy going into last year’s Six Nations, as some exciting young pieces, and a later end-of-year win over Australia, had the Azzurri pipped by many to be a squad on the rise.
And though Italy did finish last in the 2023 Six Nations (its eighth consecutive Wooden Spoon) and faced its continued share of criticism by those who want to see the Italians axed from the competition, Italy was by no means battered, finishing with a better scoring differential than fifth-place Wales, while picking up a bonus point against France, as well.
Italy’s Rugby World Cup results later in the year, however, felt largely like the same song and dance, granting ammunition to those who think Italian rugby isn’t up to par with the rest of the Six Nations group.
Annihilated 96-17 by New Zealand, then 60-7 by France in Pool A play, the Azzurri, though promising at times, still have a long way to go before they're capable of competing for serious international hardware.
Ange Capuozzo, Fullback
Considered one of Italian rugby’s best breakout wonderkids, the high-flying Toulouse back and the 2022 World Rugby Men’s 15s Breakthrough Player of the Year has been a frequent fixture for Italy since debuting at a senior international level.
Born in France but qualifying for the Italian national team through his grandparents, the diminutive Capuozzo — even at just 5-foot-10 — stands tall as likely Italy’s best player since all-time caps leader Sergio Parisse retired.
Vital in the Azzurri’s victories in 2022 against Wales and Australia, Capuozzo kept up the pace and had four international tries last season, three of which came in his debut World Cup, and will be hoping to make up for lost time after exiting last year’s Six Nations due to injury after Italy’s loss to Ireland in Round 3.
Now 24 years old and being a consistent presence for one of the biggest clubs in world rugby, Capuozzo, who has scored two tries in six appearances for Toulouse this season, may be short-handed on surrounding talent, compared to other Six Nations squads, but his blistering pace and superb skills demand attention from all who face the Italians.
Potential Breakthrough Star
Simone Gesi, Wing
Making his senior debut for Italy during its last match of last year’s Six Nations against Scotland, Gesi just missed out on the Azzurri’s World Cup squad, but the 22-year-old — with searing pace that frequently sees him compared to his compatriot Capuozzo — is looking to ensure at this year’s Six Nations that he remains near the top of squad selection list for years to come.
Gesi’s been absolutely flying for Zebre Parma in both United Rugby Championship and Challenge Cup play this season, notching 11 tries in 12 matches across all competitions, including five tries in just three European games, seeing him even with Benneton’s Onisi Ratave for the competition’s lead through the pool stages.
Those numbers, by the way, came after another impressive mark of 11 tries in 13 matches in the 2022-2023 campaign for Zebre, too.
He’s done business with Emerging Italy, too, notching a hat-trick in a late 2021 game against Romania A, so don’t be surprised if Gesi gets a spin on the wing and introduces himself to the world with his first senior try this year’s Six Nations.
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Ireland, Round 2
Italy’s opening fixture at the Stadio Olimpico against an England squad missing many key components (including captain Owen Farrell, center Ollie Lawrence and hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie, among others) could see the Azzurri play inspired in front of home support, as coach Steve Borthwick scrambles to try and move around pieces and make do with what he’s got.
Italy’s second fixture against reigning Grand Slam champion Ireland at the Aviva Stadium, however, does not have many things going in the Azzurri’s favor.
The world’s No. 1-ranked team for much of the past two years, Ireland was picked by many to finally make up for its many disappointments in the World Cup knockout rounds and win the whole thing, only to lose 28-24 to New Zealand in a quarterfinal classic.
Ireland could erupt into a team playing like it’s a mission in this year’s Six Nations, and in its debut home match of the competition, Italy — which has won just four games in 36 attempts against Ireland, including just once since 2000 — might be playing the role of the sacrificial lamb in Dublin.
It’s a bit harsh — but not unfair — to say that any Six Nations in which Italy doesn’t finish last is a success. On that note, Italy hasn’t had a successful Six Nations since 2015.
So, beyond not finishing last as the heavy betting favorite to finish at the bottom, this year’s competition should all be about chipping away for coach Gonzalo Quesada (his first Six Nations after being hired from Stade Francais) and his squad and getting the youth in the setup some valuable senior international experience and exposure to elite competition.
Keep in mind that Italy’s youth system has been fairly impressive over the past few years; it finished fourth at the 2022 U-20 Six Nations, beating England, Scotland and Wales along the way, then one-upped itself the next year by finishing third.
The tricky part for Italy has been finding ways to make the transition from youth to senior level easier for its emerging talent and making them strong factors in the older side, as success still largely has evaded the Azzurri, who still seek a true breakthrough moment to solidify them as contenders on a world stage.
That moment hasn’t arrived yet, but with some promising performances at this year’s Six Nations, it’s very possible Italy will get one step closer to reaching that goal.
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