Brunel's Azzurri pay high price for trying to change their style
Published 04/03/2014 | 02:30
There was a time when Italian international sides traded efficiently upon the uncertainty of their Irish equivalents.
Two of a hat-trick of memorable victories for the Azzurri accelerated the removal of successive Irish coaches in the dark days of nascent professionalism in the late 1990s.
Ironically, their belated inclusion at rugby's top table skewed the tables.
As Irish rugby moulded itself into an ultra-professional outfit, the Italians skedaddled backwards at a rate of knots despite a glorious opening in Rome when they spanked the Scots in their 2000 debut.
The routine in Ireland-Italy games became a stock exercise in cliche-addled condescension; the public were prepared for a banana skin but, always, it was Italy who ended up on the seat of their pants.
All that changed last March.
When Ireland were infected by uncertainty in Rome, the yips returned with fervour as a coaching ticket rattled by indecision and a playing corps riddled with infirmity allowed the Italians to celebrate once more.
Now, as Joe Schmidt calibrates his forces, re-armed yet again with the certainty of a coaching philosophy and a fit group, the relationship appears primed to reassert its familiar template.
Ireland will brace themselves for a stout Italian challenge; the Italians will simply not – should simply not be allowed to – sustain one.
Andrea Masi is a veteran of many of these clashes and it would normally be viewed as a sign of confidence within Jacques Brunel's team that the 80-capper's return this week may not guarantee him a start.
However, Italy's problems are elsewhere. The pack that laid the foundations for last season's extraordinary win has been weakened by age and the debilitation of their once formidable scrum by the new engage sequence.
What was once their tower of strength is now a weakness.
Brunel, a formidable coach with a Top 14 title to his name, has attempted to transform Italy's forward power and slavishness to destruction into a more constructive force.
The experiment, so relatively promising last term, has foundered in 2013/14, and their traditional 'get out of jail' card against Scotland last time out in Rome saw the wily Celts nab the escape route themselves.
Italy's inability to maintain possession through phases killed off their one true target of a win in this campaign.
Yet Masi speaks with giddy optimism of a revival this week in Dublin.
The 32-year-old underwent knee surgery in October but he has now returned to full fitness, completing 80 minutes in each of Wasps' last four league games, but Gonzalo Garcia and Michele Campagnaro may prevent his return to the starting XV.
"There is little to say – I like to play centre," said Masi. "But I am happy to play any role in the national team.
"We have all seen how Ireland are doing in the tournament, but also in the past few years Italy has shown in the worst moments the ability to find the strength to rise again."
Scrum-half Tito Tebaldi has been called up to the squad for the first time in almost two years as Brunel attempts to tackle the "fragility" that has undermined his necessarily expansive philosophy.
Tebaldi (26) had been in fine form in his first season with the Ospreys before picking up an ankle injury in mid-January and he joins a third player, Manoa Vosawai, in Brunel's squad for the Ireland game.
Brunel's side looked on course for victory over Scotland two weeks ago when they led 13-3 at the break, only to allow the Scots back into the game with two tries from Alex Dunbar.
Despite letting their lead slip, the Azzurri fought back with a try from Joshua Furno and led going into the 80th minute, but Duncan Weir's last-gasp drop-goal secured a first Scottish win in Rome since 2006.
That leaves Italy without a win this year, a disappointing return after last season's fourth-placed finish.
Zebre centre Garcia knows his side will have to be much better on Saturday if they are to pick up a first win in Dublin in the competition.
"Our defence was good against Scotland but that's not enough," he said.
"We made too many mistakes and we can't afford to do that.
"In the first half we held on to the ball a lot, but we played too much rugby in our own half."
Italian uncertainty is good news for Schmidt's Ireland.