Italy still playing catch-up 15 years after joining race
This weekend marks the beginning of the 16th season of Six Nations rugby and Italy are still fighting to keep pace with the big guns of European rugby.
Two years ago, the Azzurri celebrated wildly after beating Ireland for the first time in a Championship game - a victory that meant they had claimed two wins in the tournament to finish fourth for just the second time.
If it felt like a new dawn for Italian rugby, it was to prove false. Since that victory, Jacques Brunel's team have won just two Tests, against Samoa and Fiji.
In the meantime, the two clubs that supply most of their players have gone into free-fall, with Treviso and Zebre winning just 14 games between them in the last two seasons and currently occupying the bottom two places in the Guinness Pro12.
It is a bleak vista for a rugby nation who fought long and hard to win their place at the top table, even if their arrival came just too late for their best players to take the tournament by the scruff of the neck.
During their decade and a half's involvement, Italy have won nine of their 80 games, drawing one.
On their dramatic debut win over Scotland in 2000, Diego Dominguez kicked 29 of their 34 points, and the search to replace the then veteran Argentinian has gone on ever since.
New Zealander Kelly Haimona is the latest man to be offered a shot at the title and his early offerings last November were encouraging.
A native of Rotorua, the Maori made the move to Piacenza in 2011 and joined Calvisano before being picked up by Zebre, where he now plies his trade.
The 28-year-old qualifies through residency and was largely unknown before making his debut against Samoa in November. By the end of the autumn, he was the great hope.
He follows Tommaso Allan, Luciano Orquera, Kris Burton among others as the latest men to wear the out-half jersey and carries a nation's hopes on his shoulders.
Italy's traditional area of strength, the scrum, is no longer the force of old and consistency has been difficult to achieve.
On the day they beat Ireland, Italy saluted a tearful Andrea Lo Cicero as he bid farewell to the international game. Now, the former prop is concerned about the team he once represented with pride's future.
"You have to show this commitment, this aggression, not just for one or two games, you have to show it for every game," Lo Cicero said. "It's not enough to show it for one game or one match. Ireland have been very strong in the maul, so Italy must be prepared for that challenge, and it's going to be a tough one.
"Italy can be strong in those areas but this will be one of the toughest battles of the match. Now the scrum is not as strong as it was before.
"It's very difficult to go to the scrum when you have some refereeing that goes against it. It's more difficult to use the scrum as a weapon now and that's tough for Italy.
"That's something they have to understand and try to work out ways around."
Today, Jacques Brunel picks his team for the first game of his final Six Nations in charge.
The widely respected French coach has attempted to broaden Italy's style since replacing Nick Mallett, but he is still relying on the same faces each season.
Sergio Parisse and Alessandro Zanni remain the class acts in the back-row, Martin Castrogiovanni and Leonardo Ghiraldini the experienced operators in the front-row. South African Quintin Geldenhuys, of whom Joe Schmidt is a big fan, has been ruled out, leaving the engine room short on fuel.
Behind the scrum, the emergence of Michele Campagnaro at outside-centre was a boon last season, while Edoardo Gori is a strong scrum-half who will hope to get the backline moving in tandem with Haimona.
They will, no doubt, be well up for their opening game on home soil and should be stronger than they were at the tail end of last season when shipping 98 points in their final two games against Ireland and England, but the reality is they remain far off the pace of an improving elite.