PREVIEW: Italy v England
SIX NATIONS ROUND ONE: Coach Conor O'Shea insists the groundwork is being laid to break the cycle of defeat as Italy prepare to avoid another mauling against champions England in Rome this weekend.
The 47-year-old Irishman took over in March 2016 and apart from the high of a historic win over South Africa over a year ago Italy have won just one of their last 11 tests.
A win against Fiji 19-10 and heavy losses against Argentina (15-31) and South Africa (6-35) in November Tests have not given Italy's long-suffering fans reason for optimism.
But after an afternoon visit to the Colosseum in Rome where gladiators once fought bloody battles to the death, O'Shea this week discussed the painstaking progress of building a team which can realistically hope to challenge in the future.
"It's really hard because we're competitive people, [captain] Sergio [Parisse], myself, all the squad, the coaches," O'Shea told AFP.
"We want to win every game we play. We prepare to win every game. But we're also realistic. I can't stand in front of people and say 'we'll win the Grand Slam, we'll win the Six Nations, we'll win the World Cup', they will look at me and say 'you're stupid'.
"What we do control is our performances. If we play our best and England, or Ireland or France play at their best level, they will win... at the moment.
"What we're doing is making sure that our goal is to play to our best. And we'll see. Because sport is sport and it's 15 against 15 and things can happen within matches.
"It's difficult for the fans to understand that we're on the right track even if we lose. It's tough, it's a hard, hard ask all the time, to pick yourself up and to go again."
Statistics aren't on their side. Since entering the tournament in 2000, the Italians have finished bottom of the table 12 times.
But improved performances by the Pro14 clubs Treviso and Zebre have lifted hopes among Azzurri fans, and seen the internationals arrive in better shape mentally and physically.
"The good thing is something happened in the last number of months in terms of the Scottish, the Welsh and the Irish rugby unions - the Pro14 - they've looked at what we're doing and they know now we're on the right road," said the former Harlequins coach.
The right road he explains is nurturing young talent to step up to the level of veterans Parisse, 34, hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini, 33, and lock Alessandro Zanni, 34, in the twilight of their careers.
"We want a system and a process that our team have the right environment and can grow and grow."
That environment includes an experienced coaching staff of England's Mike Catt, New Zealand's Wayne Smith, performance director Pete Atkinson, along with the recent additions of a nutritionist and psychologist.
"It's more in the communications as opposed to the mental," explains O'Shea a former Irish international fullback who played most of his career with London Irish.
"It's just bringing in bits and pieces and all the time trying to add to what we have.
"If we had a magic wand, a couple of million pounds, a bigger budget, we'd make every change, right now.
"We build around what we've got, no point doing the fluffy nice things if you haven't the fundamentals in place."
The depth of talent available has also improved and O'Shea is now able to take risks with 20-year-old Treviso prop Marco Riccioni set to earn his first cap.
"I look at some of the competition now for the squad and say 'phew, there's some headaches for me' and even Sergio turned to me the other day and said 'Jeepers you're going to have some selections to make'," said O'Shea.
"I'm hoping this Six Nations yes we see Sergio, see Ale, see Leo Ghiraldini get some days that they'll remember, they've had a good few of those already, but also I want people to see Giovanni Licata, Matteo Minozzi and Renato Giammarioli and some of these young guys and go 'woah, now that's different'."
This Six Nations Italy follow their England clash with trips to Dublin, France and Wales, wrapping up against Scotland back in Rome on March 17.
Against England "our job is to play to our maximum and see where it takes us," said O'Shea, "they play to theirs they'll win."
But he also warned that Italy wanted to take advantage of the support in the Stadio Olympico.
"The support here is incredible. I'm just so desperate to win for the supporters."
Players to watch:
For Italy: There are only a couple of 'world-class' players in the Italian squad and of those, only captain and No.8 Sergio Parisse is in serious consideration for a World XV. Lock Alessandro Zanni (who will play in his 100th Test) and Leonardo Ghiraldini (89 caps) also bring plenty of experience. Nine players in the starting XV have not yet played in 10 Tests.
For England: You always wait for captain Dylan Hartley to lose the plot and get carded. If he maintains his discipline he is a good player. Ben Te'o would like to celebrate his return from injury in fine style. No.8 Sam Simmonds also has a substantial pair of boots to fill - that Billy Vunipola.
Head to head: Italy's New Zealand-born lock Dean Budd, at the ripe old age of 31, will have his work cut out for him against rising England star Maro Itoje. But perhaps the most crucial face-off will be at flyhalf - Tommaso Allan (Italy) against George Ford (England).
2017: England won 36-15, London
2016: England won 40-9, Rome
2015: England won 47-17, London
2014: England won 52-11, Rome
2013: England won 18-11, London
2012: England won 19-15, Rome
2011: England won 59-13, London
2010: England won 17-12, Rome
2009: England won 36-11, London
2008: England won 23-19, Rome
Prediction: It is simply a matter of the margin. The scoreline is usually much closer in Rome, but we still feel England will win by at least 20 points.
Italy: 15 Matteo Minozzi, 14 Tommaso Benvenuti, 13 Tommaso Boni, 12 Tommaso Castello, 11 Mattia Bellini, 10 Tommaso Allan, 9 Marcello Violi, 8 Sergio Parisse, 7 Renato Giammarioli, 6 Sebastian Negri, 5 Dean Budd, 4 Alessandro Zanni, 3 Simone Ferrari, 2 Leonardo Ghiraldini, 1 Andrea Lovotti.
Replacements: 16 Luca Bigi, 17 Nicola Quaglio, 18 Tiziano Pasquali, 19 George Biagi, 20 Maxime Mbanda, 21 Edoardo Gori, 22 Carlo Canna, 23 Jayden Hayward.
England: 15 Mike Brown, 14 Anthony Watson, 13 Ben Te'o, 12 Owen Farrell, 11 Jonny May, 10 George Ford, 9 Ben Youngs, 8 Sam Simmonds, 7 Chris Robshaw, 6 Courtney Lawes, 5 Maro Itoje, 4 Joe Launchbury, 3 Dan Cole, 2 Dylan Hartley (captain), 1 Mako Vunipola.
Replacements: 16 Jamie George, 17 Alec Hepburn, 18 Harry Williams, 19 George Kruis, 20 Sam Underhill, 21 Danny Care, 22 Jonathan Joseph, 23 Jack Nowell.
Date: Sunday, February 4
Venue: Stadio Olympico, Rome
Kick-off: 16.00 (15.00 UK time & GMT)
Expected weather: Cool, with rain tapering off. High of 12°C and low of 3°C
Referee: Mathieu Raynal (France)
Assistant referees: Jérôme Garcès (France), Nic Berry (Australia)
TMO: Glenn Newman (New Zealand)
Agence France-Presse & @rugby365com