Are Italy finally ready to compete at the Six Nations?

Since joining the Six Nations at the start of the century, Italy have finished with the wooden spoon in 18 of the 24 tournaments they have competed in.

The Azzurri have long been every rugby fan’s favourite underdog, yet they also attract plenty of criticism from fans of the other five nations for not being at the level of their European rivals.

Every January, without fail, rugby fans gather round a pint of Guinness and debate Italy’s future in the competition, with the inevitable call for Georgia, and perhaps now Portugal, being a common suggested replacement.

Italy have long spoken about their ambition of becoming a rugby-playing nation, with much of the nation’s hope focused on a new generation of young talent.

But has the Italian Rugby Federation’s faith in youth paid dividends?

Let’s look at the evidence.

Since the 2003 World Cup, Italy have invested a lot of money into developing young talent but their world ranking position has not improved as much as they might have liked.

In 21 years, Italy have climbed just two positions in World Rugby’s international rankings, only overtaking Tonga and Samoa in that time.

A graph showing how Italy’s World Rugby Ranking has changed since the 2003 World Cup. Source: World Rugby

But Italy’s youth teams are seeing some success with the Azzurri finishing third, above England, Scotland and Wales, in the U20 Six Nations.

Italy’s youth success has forced a change in tact from the FIR, with the Argentinian Gonzalo Quesada replacing Kieran Crowley as head coach.

Quesada has revolutionised the Italian squad, leaving the more experienced players at home and replacing them with a group who make up the youngest and least capped squad of this year’s Six Nations.

One player likely to make his Italian first-team debut is young flanker Alessandro Izekor.

The 23-year-old back row, who was drafted in as a late replacement for flanker Edoardo Iachizzi, is one of 17 players called up from Italian United Rugby Championship side Benetton.

Izekor is one of five uncapped players included in Italy’s squad, whilst eight others have fewer than ten caps.

While Italy’s youth revolution is unlikely to pay significant dividends this year, we could be watching the start of a project which reforms Italy into a competitive rugby playing nation.

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