Six Nations Preview: Italy

Head Coach: Conor O’Shea

Stadium: Stadio Olimpico (Capacity: 70,634)

Captain: Sergio Parisse

IRB World Ranking: 13th

Last Season: 6th

Prediction: 6th

Italy are looking like a huge improvement on the side that got dismantled by Wales, Ireland and England last year.

Italy managed a historic first ever win against the Springboks in November and they will look to carry that form through to the Six Nations, especially with France and Wales not looking the sides they were last year.

They also suffered a narrow loss to Tonga in Padua and a thrashing by New Zealand in Rome. This is another problem for the Italians they struggle to constantly get the numbers to fill their big stadiums with only one of their games being played in Rome over the autumn period.

O’Shea is putting together the team that have for long time been the growing world rugby power but are still yet to materialise as a genuine Six Nations contender.

As always Sergio Parisse looks to be the key man four weeks out from the opening game for the Azzuri.

Italy's captain Sergio Parisse (L) runs

Parisse in action for Italy.

In the backs Exeter centre, Michele Campagnaro is a standout name, his upper body strength and leg power make him a real force going forward in the midfield and with dangerous runners outside him, Italy are a real threat.

Italy have three home games this year and they face arguably two of the weaker teams at home in Wales and France. France always find it tough in Rome and Wales will not be as confident as they have been in recent years. The trips to London and Edinburgh will be tough though and I expect Ireland to beat the Italians comfortably.

O’Shea will believe his team can win games and they can, home ties will be massively important to Italy and should they get at least one win in their opening two games we can expect a big tournament from the Italians.

Fixtures

v Wales, Stadio Olimpico, 14:00, Sunday 5th February

v Ireland, Stadio Olimpico, 14:25, Saturday 11th February

v England, Twickenham Stadium, 15:00, Sunday 26th February

v France, Stadio Olimpico, 13:30, Saturday 11th March

v Scotland, BT Murrayfield, 12:30, Saturday 18th March

My Italy XV

1 Sami Panico (Calvisano) 2 Leonardo Ghiraldini (Toulouse) 3 Lorenzo Cittadini (Bayonne) 4 Marco Fuser (Treviso) 5 Quintin Geldenhuys (Zebre) 6 Franceso Minto (Treviso) 7 Simone Favaro (Glasgow) 8 Sergio Parisse (Captain, SFP)

9 Edoardo Gori (Treviso) 10 Carlo Canna (Zebre) 11 Giovanbattista Venditti (Newcastle) 12 Luke McLean (Treviso) 13 Michele Campagnaro (Exeter) 14 Giulio Bisegni (Zebre) 15 Edoardo Padovani (Zebre)

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Aviva Premiership Preview: Harlequins

Director of Rugby/ Head Coach: John Kingston and Mark Mapletoft

Captain: Danny Care

Stadium: Twickenham Stoop (Capacity: 14,800)

Last Season: 7th

Prediction: 6th

Harlequins will ultimately be disappointed with last season along with the likes of Bath and Gloucester the Londoners failed to live up to the pre-season hype.

Harlequins have a backbone of proven, international stars with Danny Care, Mike Brown and Nick Evans leading the backs. In the pack there is Chris Robshaw and Joe Marler leading from the front.

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Former England captain, Chris Robshaw.

Under Conor O’Shea Harlequins won the league by playing expansive rugby, they like to go wide. John Kingston is likely to keep to that gameplan and they certainly have the personnel to stick to that.

Harlequins lineout is one thing that did go right last season, they have a plethora of hookers all of which have been selected in an England squad, couple that with a group of experienced locks makes their lineout among the most efficient in Europe.

THREE TO WATCH

Jack Clifford

Position: Back Row  Nationality: English  Age: 23  Height: 1.91m  Weight: 111kg

The openside flanker is exceptional at the breakdown more like a southern hemisphere openside than his predecessor at Harlequins, Chris Robshaw.

He has a scary amount of pace which was on display as he burst to score against Wales back in May at Twickenham. His attacking pace and powerful legs make him a dangerous carrier from the second or third receiver position.

Jamie Roberts

Position: Centre  Nationality: Welsh  Age: 29  Height: 1.93m  Weight: 110kg

The explosive Wales centre bursts open defences with his considerable strength, his upper body strength makes him hard to bring down and this along with an explosive leg drive sees him able to break tackles.

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Jamie Roberts will be key this season.

Roberts crash ball carrying can suck in defenders opening space for the more speedy players out wide such as Marland Yarde and Tim Visser.

Kyle Sinckler

Position: Prop  Nationality: English  Age: 23  Height: 1.82m  Weight: 122kg

The abrasive, explosive youngster is finally getting recognised by Eddie Jones as an option for England behind Leicester prop, Dan Cole.

Sinckler can be prone to penalties at the scrum and that has long been a weakness for the Harlequins star. This season is surely the one where the 23 year old can start to push on not just for his club but also England.

TRANSFERS

IN (7)

Alofa Alofa (Stade Rochelais, FRA)

Cameron Holenstein (Pau, FRA)

Ruaridh Jackson (Wasps, ENG)

Aaron Morris (Saracens, ENG)

Charlie Mulchrone (Worcester Warriors, ENG)

George Naoupu (Connacht, IRE)

Mark Reddish (Highlanders, NZL)

OUT (6)

Ben Botica (Montpellier Herault, FRA)

Nick Easter (Retired, RET)

Ollie Lindsay-Hague (Released, REL)

Beau Robinson (Doncaster Knights, ENG)

Tito Tebladi (Benetton Treviso, ITA)

Kieran Treadwell (Ulster, IRE)

The addition of Jackson is a hugely beneficial signing, he offers a more pragmatic playmaking option to play at fly-half. Charlie Mulchrone improves the depth at scrum-half and with Naoupu at eight Harlequins have recruited well.

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Jackson in action for Wasps.

Nick Easter, a fantastic servant to Harlequins and England. Botica has been a good player for Harlequins and in attack is really important outlet, he may well be the biggest miss.

My Harlequins 23

15 Mike Brown 14 Marland Yarde 13 Joe Marchant 12 Jamie Roberts 11 Tim Visser 10 Nick Evans 9 Danny Care (Captain)

1 Joe Marler 2 Dave Ward 3 Kyle Sinckler 4 Charlie Matthews 5 James Horwill 6 Chris Robshaw 7 Jack Clifford 8 George Naoupu

16 Joe Gray 17 Owen Evans 18 Mark Lambert 19 Netani Talei 20 Luke Wallace 21 Charlie Mulchrone 22 Ruaridh Jackson 23 Alofa Alofa

The play-offs should be a step too far for the Harlequins squad under Kingston, qualification for the Champions Cup is likely.