THERE was a time when, whether playing against Scotland or any of their other Six Nations opponents, Italy could often be expected to do little more than hang in and hope their opponents had an off day. To try and turn the game into an arm wrestle, or just disrupt it, limiting the amount of rugby played by most means possible.
Not any more. Now, at least according to head coach Conor O’Shea, they are fit enough not to be frightened by contests in which the ball is actually in play for long stretches. And, what is more, they are creative enough to be able to stamp their own mark on proceedings.
If some of that creativity comes naturally to the Azzurri, a lot also arises from the shrewd mind of O’Shea himself. Two selections made by the former Ireland full-back in his team to play at Murrayfield on Saturday bear testament to that. One is the selection of Wasps’ Michele Campagnaro on the wing instead of his usual position of outside centre, and the other is the decision to give a debut to David Sisi, the German-born forward who has played for London Irish, London Scottish, Bath, Yorkshire Carnegie and England Under-20s. After naming his team on Thursday – and before going for a run round Arthur’s Seat – O’Shea explained those selections, starting with Campagnaro.
“In our opinion, after all the injuries he had last year, he’s a world-class outside centre,” the coach said. “But Luca Morisi is a guy who’s battled back after a number of years of playing really good rugby at Treviso week in and week out, and Tommy Castello is a guy that you build teams around because he’s got this fighting spirit in him.
“With the injuries to people like Mattia Bellini and Matteo Minozzi, and Leo Sarto coming back from a long-term double shoulder surgery, we could have gone with Luca Sperandio, or Edo Padovani could start on the wing quite happily. But we wanted to get this particular group – and also we want to see Michele Campagnaro with the ball in his hands. We want him to have that kind of licence to get involved as much as he can off the wing. Just because you have a number on your back doesn’t mean you won’t see him in some of the start-up plays at outside centre.
“Luca and Tommy Castello will provide real ballast. Luca Morisi has got a really top skill set, a really good ability with ball in hand. So it’s getting the best players on the pitch that we feel will do a job this weekend and that’s what I’ve decided we’ll go with. And we’ll see.”
Sisi is 25 now – the same age as Campagnaro – and for long enough he seemed destined to spend his career in the back-row. Even when he moved to Zebre in the summer of 2017 he was still seen as a flanker, but O’Shea had a different vision.
“I’ve known David for a long time,” he continued. “A couple of years ago when we knew he was available we asked him to come over to play with Zebre. He’s a guy who has mobility, but the minute he came over we said ‘We see you as a second row’.
“That’s because the depth we have in Italian rugby in the back-row is outstanding, and the competition in that. So he’s dedicated his last years to getting bigger ears and playing in the second row.
“You know you’ve got a guy who’s got ball-playing ability. But we want him to be that traditional No 4. There’s always options, but we’re excited by what David can bring to this team. He’s got a physical edge, he’s got an 80-minute engine, but he’s got ball-playing ability as well.”
Stamina not an issue
With a player like Sisi at lock, it is little wonder that O’Shea has faith in his team’s durability – something he did not have in such abundance during his first months in the job. “Ball-in-play time doesn’t worry us now,” he explained. “A year ago, two years ago, it might have worried us, in fact it would have probably frightened us. But in same of the games we’ve played the ball has been in play maybe 42 minutes, so ball in play, no issue.
“We’ll get around the pitch and we’ll try and play ourselves. You note Grant Gilchrist talking about the amount of ball-in-play time that they want, so we’re not expecting many line-outs in the game, although there will be times when both teams will want to rest and get it off the pitch.”
While giving the impression that he is increasingly confident in his team’s ability to deliver, O’Shea never talks up his own squad to the detriment of his opponents. He is all too aware that if the Italians underperform, they could be taken apart by a Scotland side who, though still maturing, are probably a couple of years further on their development.
“You know what they’ve got now in terms of Greig Laidlaw at nine and that ability to put his foot on it, like the typical petit général in French rugby,” the Irishman said when asked to assess the threat from the hosts. “And you’ve got Finn Russell, who is playing incredible rugby at 10 as well. It’s a side that has got unbelievable threats. If you think Fiji lost by 50 points here and then went over and beat France . . .
“This Scottish team has the ability to really, really cut loose. Our job is to try and stay with them, take our chances and then create pressure mentally. Any team at the very highest level, if given space, if they get a buffer, then the confidence begins to flow – and you don’t want to play this Scottish team with a huge amount of confidence.”
Italy (v Scotland at Murrayfield, Saturday 2.15pm): Jayden Hayward; Angelo Esposito, Luca Morisi, Tommaso Castello,Michele Campagnaro; Tommaso Allan, Tito Tebaldi; Andrea Lovotti, Leonardo Ghiraldini, Simone Ferrari, David Sisi, Dean Budd, Sebastian Negri, Abraham Steyn, Sergio Parisse (c). Subs: Luca Bigi, Cherif Traore, Tiziano Pasquali, Federico Ruzza, Jimmy Tuivaiti, Guglielmo Palazzani, Ian McKinley, Edoardo Padovani.