Six Nations

Franco Smith's Italy take on Six Nations leaders Wales with more than pride at stake

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Franco Smith. (Photo by Vincenzo Pinto/AFP)
Franco Smith. (Photo by Vincenzo Pinto/AFP)

Franco Smith's Italy take on Six Nations leaders Wales in Rome on Saturday not only trying to avoid a 31st consecutive loss but with questions over their future in the tournament.

The 'Azzurri' are searching for their first Six Nations win in six years, when they beat Scotland in Edinburgh.

The tournament's whipping boys have this season conceded 19 tries and 139 points in three games against France, England and Ireland.

Smith estimated after the 48-10 hammering to Ireland it could take up to eight years for his team to become competitive.

A time delay many believe unacceptable with Georgia moving ahead of Italy in the world rankings and Romania, Spain, Portugal and Russia not far behind.

"Have I seen any signs of progress down the years? Not really," former Ireland international Tony Ward told AFP.

"The late 90s they had a really strong amazingly powerful side with Diego Dominguez at flyhalf and Alessandro Troncon at scrumhalf, in fact all across the backline they were good.

"However, they have not built on that and when Franco Smith says it could take seven or eight years that is a frightfully long time and is repeating what several of his predecessors have said," Ward continued.

"Italy have to be better than that, so if it takes having a play-off at the end of the year with the top tier two European team, logically Romania or Georgia at the moment, so be it.

"Then the other five countries will know they are playing the best of the rest. At least it would be a meritocracy."

Italy have finished bottom of the Six Nations table 15 times since joining the expanded championship in 2000, coming last in the last five editions.

South African Smith took over from Ireland's Conor O'Shea, who led Italy for three years until the 2019 World Cup.

The former Treviso and Cheetahs boss has been rebuilding with the youngest squad in the tournament largely drawn from Italy's U20s after the departure of players such as emblematic captain Sergio Parisse.

Only three of the starting line-up against Wales - captain Luca Bigi, flyhalf Carlo Canna and lock Sebastian Negri - have more than 30 caps.

Emerging talent include 20-year-old flyhalf Paolo Garbisi, flanker Michele Lamaro, lock Niccolo Cannone, both 22, and Welsh-born Gloucester scrumhalf Stephen Varney, 19.

"The real opponent is ourselves, it doesn't really matter who we play against," said Smith as he searches for his first win with the team.

"We are developing players to increase the squad at our disposal and bring home positive results with continuity."

'Right mentality'

O'Shea's reign had started well with an historic win over South Africa in Florence in 2016, but Italy were unable to build on that.

"It's about how you break that psychological barrier," said O'Shea.

"They are trying to play a really good brand of rugby under Franco.

"We should all want teams like Georgia and Romania to grow, but let's not kill off any other nation while we're at it."

Italy's 107-times capped hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini, who called time on his national career in January, believes the problem comes from the club sides.

"We are not used to winning often and that comes from the club," the 36-year-old told sixnationsrugby.com.

"If you have a winning mentality, you can bring that to the national team.

"We know we are in a tough moment in Italy in terms of results. Sometimes we are really close to winning.

"We don't have the right mentality."

England captain Owen Farrell, however, defended Italy whose penultimate match pits them against Grand-Slam chasing Wales who won against England, Ireland and Scotland to claim the Triple Crown.

Italy have beaten Wales twice in 2003 and 2007, both in Rome, losing heavily 42-0 in Cardiff last year.

"I certainly feel they are good enough to stay in the long term," said Farrell.

"I can see the direction Franco is taking them and it's the right one. It is a newish group and that takes some time."

Wales will be firm favourites to win ahead of a Six Nations finale against title rivals France in Paris next week.

But scrum-half Gareth Davies said the side chosen by Wales coach Wayne Pivac was proof that the Azzurri were not being taken for granted.

"The team Wayne has picked for this week shows them (Italy) a lot of respect," he said.

"It won't be an easy challenge. I am sure it will be a tough game for us, but hopefully one we can come out on top of."

Kick-off in Rome is at 16:15 (SA time) on Saturday.

Teams:

Italy

15 Jacopo Trulla, 14 Mattia Bellini, 13 Ignacio Brex, 12 Carlo Canna, 11 Monty Ioane, 10 Paolo Garbisi, 9 Stephen Varney, 8 Michele Lamaro, 7 Johan Meyer, 6 Sebastian Negri, 5 David Sisi, 4 Niccolo Cannone, 3 Giosue Zilocchi, 2 Luca Bigi (captain), 1 Danilo Fischetti

Substitutes: 16 Oliviero Fabiani, 17 Andrea Lovotti, 18 Marco Riccioni, 19 Marco Lazzaroni, 20 Maxime Mbanda, 21 Marcello Violi, 22 Federico Mori, 23 Edoardo Padovani

Wales

15 Liam Williams, 14 Louis Rees-Zammit, 13 George North, 12 Jonathan Davies, 11 Josh Adams, 10 Dan Biggar, 9 Gareth Davies, 8 Taulupe Faletau, 7 Justin Tipuric, 6 Josh Navidi, 5 Alun Wyn Jones (captain), 4 Cory Hill, 3 Tomas Francis, 2 Ken Owens, 1 Wyn Jones

Substitutes: 16 Elliot Dee, 17 Rhys Carre, 18 Leon Brown, 19 Jake Ball, 20 Aaron Wainwright, 21 Lloyd Williams, 22 Callum Sheedy, 23 Willis Halaholo

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