Rugby World Cup 2019 Profile: Italy - Fruits of Conor O'Shea’s labour won’t be ripe for Japan

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With the Rugby World Cup just eight weeks away, we take a closer look at each of the competing nations. After profiling 12 teams, we continue our series with Italy.

Italy coach Conor O’Shea cut a forlorn figure in the stands as the Azzurri crashed to another heavy defeat in this year’s Six Nations.

The word coming out of Rome is that his industrious work at grassroots level may come to fruition down the line, but it is unlikely the Irishman will still be at the helm to witness it.

With the prospect of facing both New Zealand and South Africa in the World Cup pool stages, there is little hope of Italy reaching a first quarter-final on their ninth tournament appearance.

The Azzurri, who have slumped to 14th in the world rankings, should finish third in Pool B, if they beat Namibia and Canada.

However, they come into the tournament on the back of a difficult 20 months, which highlighted their diminishing status on the international stage and reviving questions about whether they should be replaced by Georgia in the Six Nations.

O’Shea’s side managed just two wins in 11 games in 2018, a narrow triumph in Japan and a home victory over Georgia, but were otherwise well beaten in all other matches except for a slender three point defeat to Scotland.

In the 2019 Six Nations, they were beaten in all five of their matches, scoring 79 points and conceding 167. In saying that, however, it’s the least number of points they have shipped in a campaign since O’Shea took over as head coach in March 2016.

Their average defeat this year so far is a 33-16 loss, although they only conceded more than 30 points in two matches, against Scotland (33-20) and England (57-14).

That points to a limited attack and creaking defence, with little time to fix things in the warm-up matches before the World Cup.

Their style of play is based on a dominant set-piece, with the pack having been the jewel in their crown for many years now. But if Italy can barely threaten the line and then tire out with the speed of the opposition’s attacking play, then it is only a matter of time before they are opened up in matches.

A couple of younger exciting players like Matteo Minozzi and Braam Steyn, though, should add some firepower during the World Cup, but against the All Blacks and Springboks they are likely to struggle.

While Italy may have only won six out of 33 matches since O’Shea’s arrival, it’s worth looking at club sides Zebre and Benetton to see true signs of rugby’s development in Italy.

The former Irish international was tasked with one of the most difficult jobs in world rugby when he took up the role over three years ago after the Azzurri had finished bottom of the Six Nations again.

And, although many onlookers will point to his paltry 18 per cent win record as a sign of little progress, positive changes are starting to show for the PRO14 sides.

Benetton reached the PRO14 quarter-finals for the first time this year, while Zebre slipped back after winning a club record seven matches in the 2017/18 campaign.

Fresh from their historic run to the league quarters, Benetton account for 50 per cent of the Italian World Cup training squad with 22 call-ups.

Captain Sergio Parisse, who currently plys his trade with Toulon, is in the running for his fifth World Cup tournament while two other veterans, Leonardo Ghiraldini and Alessandro Zanni, are chasing their fourth appearance.

There are returns for Marco Fuser, Rernato Giammarioli, Marco Lazzaroni and Giosue Zilocchi, while Mattia Bellini, Giovanni Licata, Minozzi, Marcello Violi and Zani return to the squad following injury.

There are also three uncapped players included in scrum-half Callum Braley, hooker Enjiel Makelara and prop Marco Riccioni.

O’Shea’s men face Ireland (August 10), Russia (August 17), France (August 30) and England (September 6) in the build-up to the World Cup.

With signs of progress beginning to show, Italian club rugby is certainly in its most promising place yet. But whether O’Shea sees out another few years in the Italian capital is another story altogether, with a decision to be made later in the year.

After a disappointing Six Nations, two wins from their four matches in the World Cup should have the Azzurri leaving Japan with confidence and knowing that they fulfilled their potential on the grand stage.

Nickname: Azzurri

Union: Federazione Italiana Rugby

Head coach: Conor O’Shea

Captain: Sergio Parisse

Most caps: Sergio Parisse (134)

Top scorer: Diego Dominguez (983)

Top try scorer: Marcello Cuttitta (25)

Home stadium: Stadio Olimpico

Star man: Sergio Parisse

Best finish: Pool stages (1987, 1991, 1995, 1999, 2003, 2007, 2011, 2015)

Fixtures: Namibia (September 22), Canada (September 26), South Africa (October 4), New Zealand (October 12)

DID YOU KNOW?

Italy crashed to a comprehensive 101-0 defeat against South Africa in Durban in June 1999 – their heaviest ever loss.

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All Blacks hopeful Brodie Retallick will be fit for Rugby World Cup

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All Blacks star Brodie Retallick remained in the World Cup frame Sunday after X-rays cleared him of any structural damage to his shoulder injured in the bruising Test against South Africa.

The 28-year-old dislocated his shoulder after being sent flying from a ruck by Springboks replacement forward RG Snyman during the drawn Test in Wellington on Saturday.

Coach Steve Hansen said there was no timeline for Retallick’s return but he was “hopeful he would be available” for the World Cup.

“It’s reasonably positive. He’s only dislocated it. So there is a good possibility he could make the World Cup,” said Hansen.

“He’s one of our best players so we’re relieved. It’s good.”

The All Blacks’ first match in the World Cup is against South Africa on September 21.

The imposing Retallick was a key part of the New Zealand side that won the 2015 World Cup.

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Rugby World Cup 2019 Profile: Scotland - Gregor Townsend's side have potential to fly despite poor Six Nations

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With the Rugby World Cup just nine weeks away, we take a closer look at each of the competing nations. After profiling 11 teams, we continue our series with Scotland.

One large leap forward and two steps back.

This isn’t referring to Tom Jones sparkling footwork during his famous track, but describing the Scottish rugby team in recent years.

Every time it looks like they are catching up with Northern Hemisphere powerhouses England, Wales and Ireland, they suffer defeats to the likes of France and Fiji.

And while confidence appeared to be rising in the Scotland camp after last year’s third-place finish in the Six Nations, they ended up finishing fifth this season.

But for all the disappointment, two things will instil more belief and motivation ahead of the Rugby World Cup.

Firstly, the Scots gathered momentum from their storming second-half display against England at Twickenham back in March.

Down 31-7 at half-time, Gregor Townsend’s side roared back to lead 38-37, only to concede a late try and England to force a draw.

Still, a commendable finish to the campaign nevertheless.

Secondly, they proved that they can be competitive on the World Cup stage, reaching the quarter-finals of the 2015 edition, only to be robbed of a late victory against the Wallabies.

Imagine referee Craig Joubert didn’t award that late kick and the Scots reached a first semi-final since 1991?

A lot can happen in four years though and with the same players still lighting up the grand stage, a place in the knock-outs is something the Scots will be hoping to emulate this autumn.

An all-important clash with Ireland is likely to decide whether they qualify first or second from Pool A.

In February, they dominated possession and territory against Ireland at Murrayfield. But a litany of errors in the second-half saw them crash to a 22-13 defeat.

Scotland have beaten Japan in all five of their previous meetings. Townsend’s troops, however, should be wary of the home side’s threat, backed by a strong home crowd.

Samoa and Russia make up the rest of the pool, with Scotland having only lost once in 10 matches against Samoa. The match with Russia will be the first-ever meeting of the two sides.

Should Scotland finish second in the pool, they are likely to face holders New Zealand for a spot in the semis.

The Scots pride themselves on being a very fit team and should put it up to most sides.

Townsend has put significant emphasis on speeding up the play and increasing ball-in-time play where possible. That was evident in the Six Nations win over Italy and in the second period against England.

Progress is being made and if Scotland can reach the last eight, it would confirm their place among the elite sides in the world after a difficult year.

As expected, there is a raft of marquee names selected in Townsend’s squad, such as Stuart Hogg, Finn Russell and Jonny Gray, with 14 other players boasting previous World Cup experience.

Rory Hutchinson, Grant Stewart and Blade Thomson all made the 42-man training squad, while veteran flanker John Barclay is fit following a year out with an Achilles tendon injury.

Scotland play four warm-up matches, home and away against both France and Georgia in August, before flying to Japan.

After a disappointing Six Nations campaign, belief should still be high for Scotland fans given their favourable pool and chance of reaching another quarter-final.

A solid game plan, tactical consistency, discipline in defence and advancing to the knock-out stages should make for a positive World Cup.

And if Hogg can show some of Jones’ sparkling footwork in Japan, then we are in for a treat.

Nicknames: The Scots

Union: Scottish Rugby Union

Head coach: Gregor Townsend

Captain: Greig Laidlaw

Most caps: Ross Ford (110)

Top scorer: Chris Paterson (809)

Top try scorer: Ian Smith & Tony Stanger (24)

Home stadium: Murrayfield

Key player: Stuart Hogg. The 27-year-old is a lethal runner and his vast talents make him one of the stand-out players to watch in the World Cup. Often acting as a second playmaker, the Exeter man draws defenders to release his teammates and has pace to burn when in possession.

Best finish: Semi-final (1991)

Fixtures: Ireland (September 22), Samoa (September 30), Russia (October 9), Japan (October 13)

DID YOU KNOW?

Scotland lost 9-6 to England in the 1991 Rugby World Cup semi-finals after Gavin Hastings missed a penalty in front of and a short distance from the posts.

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