Is this the year that Italy finally break with tradition in the Six Nations?
Aside from stirring renditions of the Canto degli Italiani, the Azzurri have had little to cheer in the competition.
Italy’s past five tournaments have ended in the wooden spoon, their last Six Nations win came in 2015 against Scotland, and they find themselves on a 27-game losing streak.
The task couldn’t be more daunting for South African head coach Franco Smith, who was only appointed permanently after taking interim charge for the 2020 edition.
Smith told the tournament launch: “We don’t want to have a one-off where we play well, this is a new start for Italy rugby.”
The Italy boss will hope the four uncapped players in his 32-man squad – Daniele Rimpelli, Marco Manfredi, Riccardo Favretto and Juan Ignacio Brex – can help provide that fresh start.
Long-term custodians Sergio Parisse and Leonardo Ghiraldini are gone, while Tommaso Allen is the most experienced option in Smith’s squad with 60 appearances.
But it is Gloucester back row Jake Polledri and Wasps full-back Matteo Minozzi who will be most sorely missed, the former out with a knee injury and Minozzi citing physical and mental exhaustion in the bubble.
Both take Premiership experience with them, meaning the spotlight will be on captain Luca Bigi to channel his predecessors and rally this youthful group to a respectable showing.
Smith has talked of transforming Italy into a ‘last 20-minute team’ following a poor Autumn Nations Cup, where their sole victory was awarded after Fiji’s players were struck down by COVID-19.
The Azzurri showed a lack of composure in that tournament by squandering a 14-7 lead against Scotland to lose 17-28 and then suffered a 36-5 drubbing by France who are their opponents in Saturday’s opener.
But there are reasons to be excited about this new crop of players, who may feel unburdened by the weight of history.
Paolo Garbisi is his country’s most promising prospect at 20, and enjoyed a meteoric rise last year, having captained an exciting Italy side at the World U20 Championships in 2019.
The Welsh-born Stephen Varney is another young half-back who Smith will rely on after the 19-year-old was called up for the first time in October thanks to his Italian mother.
Then there are the compelling human stories such as that of flanker Maxime Mbanda, who was made a ‘Knight of the Republic’ for his work as an ambulance driver in the first wave of the pandemic.
That serves as a reminder of the unavoidable wider context. After such a torrid 2020, a win in any of Italy’s three games at the Stadio Olimpico would be felt far beyond Rome.
Featured image credit: Fabrizio Andrea Bertani via Shutterstock