Mallett counts Italy’s Six Nations positives

Italy coach Nick Mallett beleives that his squad, even without captain and No8 Sergio Parisse, are in good shape ahead of the Six Nations.

The 53-year-old former Springbok handler is entering his third Six Nations campaign with a daunting opening match against Grand Slam winners Ireland in Rome on February 6.

However, Mallett, who guided South Africa to 27 wins in his 38 Tests in charge, including reaching the 1999 World Cup semi-finals, is adamant that his team is improving even if it is only gauged by the margins of defeat.

“Listen, we were losing matches to the All Blacks and to the Springboks by over 50 points; now we are getting our best results ever against them and losing say by just over or under 20 points,” he said.

“I admit that last year’s summer tour where we had to play New Zealand and Australia was a terrifying prospect. But in the end we lost all three shipping over 30 points in both tests against the Wallabies and less than 30 against the All Blacks.

“The players displayed one hell of a spirit.”

Mallett, whose side won just one of their 11 matches last year and that was a 24-6 victory over the higher-ranked Samoa, said he believed that despite the absence of Parisse – who suffered a cruciate ligament injury last November – he had a broader selection of players to choose from.

“We now have some very good international players,” said Mallett.

“However, to have five games in such a short space of time like the Six Nations is daunting.

“We have broadened the base in terms of being able to pick for the squad than two years ago. We are not in such dire straits as we were.”

Mallett has replaced Parisse as captain by hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini.

“Leonardo has captained Italy twice before when Sergio has been unavailable,” said Mallett.

“He is part of a world class front row and I think that hooker is a very good position to captain a side from.

“Of course we will miss Sergio, but you can’t be a one-man team – that really would be a sad state of affairs.”

Mallett has also had to try and fill one of the problem positions Italy has had since the retirement of fly-half Diego Dominguez.

Controversially, he has turned to former Australian rugby league star Craig Gower.

The 31-year-old has been involved in several alcohol-related incidents off the pitch but Mallett snapped him up after learning he was eligible to play through an Italian grandfather.

However, while Mallett believes that Gower will bring several qualities to the team, primarily in terms of defence, ball carrying and his physicality, he also accepts there are some things to be improved on.

“Fly-half is a position where you have to be able to communicate with the other players,” said Mallett.

“That’s a big problem as Craig doesn’t speak Italian, as he has been raised in Australian and plays his club rugby in France (Bayonne). Like me, he is making efforts to learn.

“Secondly he is lacking in his kicking game, not for points, but in terms of kicking for position and touch.”

Mallett, though, remains bullish about rugby in Italy and that the public are beginning to swing round to supporting them.

“Playing New Zealand at the San Siro (in Milan last November) was a very special moment,” said Mallett.

“80,000 people turned up. The public had realised that we were boxing outside our division but they admired their passion and pride and that is crucial.”

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