An improving force in world rugby, Italy have been handed a tough pool for their seventh World Cup. Drawn against Australia, Ireland, Russia and the USA in Pool C, the Azzurri are officially ranked third in their pool and are an outside chance for a quarter-final spot.
Nonetheless Italy will take heart from their recent Six Nations exploits in which they ran Ireland close in an eventual 11-13 defeat before a historic 22-21 win against France signalled their emergence as a potential upset threat to the premier teams.
Italy will look to improve on their first World Cup appearance on New Zealand soil. Famously thrashed 70-6 in the opening match in 1987 by eventual champions New Zealand, Italy restored respectability with a win over Fiji before finishing third in their pool. However Italy is yet to build on this start, with third placing or worse in pool play a regular theme in future championships. Steadily improving results in the Six Nations have not yet translated into success on the biggest stage.
In South African Nick Mallet, Italy boasts an experienced international coach. Mallet coached South Africa to their first Tri-Nations crown in 1998 before winning back-to-back French domestic titles in 2003-04 with Stade Francais. With former national captain and international centurion Alessandro Troncon as assistant, Italy has a coaching staff with an impressive resume.
Traditionally Italian teams possess formidable forwards and the 2011 vintage is no different. A number of Italy’s forwards ply their trade in European premier clubs. Captain Sergio Parisse of Stade Francois and Leicester prop Martin Castrogiovanni, who has scored ten tries for the national team, are just two notable members of a very competitive forward pack that boasts over 500 caps.
The back line does not have quite the same record, although Racing Metro centre Mirco Bergamasco and 2011 Six Nations Player of the Championship winner Andrea Masi add a dash of panache to a reliable, if not spectacular line-up. Masi is the first Italian to win the award and Italy need their star fullback to continue this form if they are to be competitive on more than one front.
Barring an upset win at Eden Park against Australia on 11th September, Italy will need to target games against relative minnows Russia (20th September) and the USA (27th September) to give themselves a chance to progress. If this is achieved, a tantalising rematch beckons against the Irish on 2nd October in what could be a pool-defining fixture.