Six Nations 2019 Championship in focus: Italy
Italy travel to Scotland in Round 1 of the 2019 Six Nations Championship on Saturday February 2
By Sky Sports Rugby Union
Last Updated: 28/01/19 3:02pm
Italy enter this year's Six Nations looking to end a run of 17 straight defeats and once again defending their place in 'Rugby's Greatest Championship'.
They have not tasted victory in the competition since a last-gasp success against Scotland at Murrayfield in 2015 - a win that ensured they avoided the dreaded wooden spoon that year, although it has been a constant companion ever since.
Head coach Conor O'Shea repeatedly insists they are making progress, but they have slumped to 15th in the World Rugby rankings, and his 'Tier 1' side currently sit behind the likes of Fiji, Japan, United States, Georgia, and Tonga.
With New Zealand and South Africa awaiting the Azzurri in Pool B at this year's Rugby World Cup, it appears they need to make some rapid progress in the coming months - starting with a Six Nations revival.
- Six Nations since 2000: Zero titles.
- Italy have played in 19 tournaments, recording 11 wins, and finishing with the wooden spoon on 13 occasions.
- Scotland, BT Murrayfield (Edinburgh), Saturday, February 2 - 2.15pm (GMT)
- Wales, Stadio Olimpico (Rome), Saturday February 9 - 4.45pm (GMT)
- Ireland, Stadio Olimpico (Rome), Sunday, February 24 - 3pm (GMT)
- England, Twickenham (London), Saturday, March 9 - 4.45pm (GMT)
- France, Stadio Olimpico (Rome), Saturday, March 16 - 12.30pm (GMT)
It was an all too familiar story for Italy in last year's Championship, with five successive defeats leaving them rock bottom of the table.
The nearest they came to breaking their duck was against Scotland in Rome, where a late Greig Laidlaw penalty carried the visitors to a 29-27 win, and Italy's only reward was their first ever bonus point in the Championship.
Elsewhere, it was a series of harsh lessons, with England (46-15), Ireland (56-19), France (34-17) and Wales (38-14) claiming big wins, although O'Shea is adamant his side were competitive in each of those games, with the exception of the defeat to the Irish.
Of note is the fact they notched 12 tries in last year's Championship - more than Scotland and France, and only one less than runners-up Wales - which suggests they may have the firepower to trouble their rivals if they can shore up their defence.
Benetton have surprised many in this season's PRO14, and they are currently sitting in the play-off places, which would also guarantee them Heineken Champions Cup rugby next season if they can sustain that level of performance.
Age-grade rugby has provided further cause for hope, with Italy U20s claiming victories over Wales and Scotland in last year's Six Nations, before claiming an eighth-placed finish at the World Rugby U20s Championship in the summer.
Italy U18s also claimed an impressive victory over England U18s in their Six Nations Festival clash last year.
O'Shea insists this is evidence that Italian rugby is on the right track.
"There is no doubt that what has been put in place is making a difference not only with Zebre and Benetton, but just look at the results from our U20's," he told Rugby Pass last year.
"We would never say we are world beaters, but we are putting together a functional and competitive system.
"We are nowhere near where we could be, but we have made significant changes, and now real quality players are coming through, and that is a massive credit to the coaching teams at the two PRO14 clubs."
Italy have not tasted victory at the Stadio Olimpico - in any international - in almost six years, dating back to a stunning victory over Ireland in 2013.
A summer tour to Japan brought some relief, but a narrow victory in their second Test in Kobe only ensured a share of the series spoils.
Normal service was resumed in the autumn, where defeats to New Zealand, Ireland, and Australia emphasised the gulf that remains between them and the world's best.
There was, however, a morale-boosting 28-17 victory over Georgia in Firenze, which will have gone some way to silencing calls for their Rugby Europe Championship rivals to replace them in the Six Nations.
Sergio Parisse. Parisse has stood over the Six Nations like a colossus since stepping onto the Championship stage for the first time back in 2004.
It has been a long, hard road for Parisse - one that is nearing its end, with the formidable back-row forward potentially set to bring the curtain down on his career following this year's World Cup.
It will come as little surprise to those who have witnessed his inspirational presence that he has featured in all but one of the 10 Six Nations victories the Azzurri have claimed since he made his Championship debut.
The stage is set for one final hurrah for a fit and firing Parisse; with three games in front of his adoring home fans, don't bet against him giving them something to finally cheer.
Italy's 31-man Six Nations squad
Forwards (17): Simone Ferrari, Andrea Lovotti, Tiziano Pasquali, Cherif Traore, Giosue Zilocchi, Luca Bigi, Leonardo Ghiraldini, Dean Budd, Federico Ruzza, David Sisi, Alessandro Zanni, Marco Barbini, Maxime Mbanda, Sebastian Negri, Sergio Parisse (capt), Braam Steyn, Jimmy Tuivaiti
Backs (14): Guglielmo Palazzani, Tito Tebaldi, Tommaso Allan, Carlo Canna, Ian McKinley, Giulio Bisegni, Michele Campagnaro, Tommaso Castello, Luca Morisi, Tommaso Benvenuti, Angelo Esposito, Jayden Hayward, Edoardo Padovani, Luca Sperandio