A bumper crowd is expected at Sandy Park on Saturday as the two remaining unbeaten teams in the Women’s Six Nations 2019 go head-to-head.
Hosts England have taken a big stride towards a second Grand Slam in three attempts with wins over Ireland, Wales and defending champions France. But the identity of their closest challengers this season might be a little more surprising.
Italy have only been playing in the Women’s Six Nations since 2007, and the Azzurre’s highest finish is the third place that was secured in 2015 with victories over France, Scotland and Wales.
However, progress has been made since they beat Spain to ninth place at Women’s Rugby World Cup 2017, the country’s best ever performance in the Azzurre’s first appearance for 15 years.
So far in this year’s Women’s Six Nations, a youthful Italy squad have beaten Scotland, drawn with Wales and recorded a first victory over Ireland.
Italy currently sit seventh in the World Rugby Women’s Rankings, are the third-highest European side and could climb above Australia if they spoil England’s day and win by more than 15 points in Exeter.
That might seem an unlikely occurrence but the Azzurre are clearly building in the right direction, and head coach Andrea di Giandomenico and his squad are confident.
“It would be fantastic to win the Six Nations!” he said.
“Obviously, results are making us confident and are stimulating for the whole movement but our goal still remains to build awareness and consistency within the team.
“This is something that can be done even at the bottom of the ranking.”
It is easier to spread the word when the team is winning, though, and Di Giandomenico acknowledges that there is a greater understanding of women’s rugby in the country now.
“A lot [has changed] from visibility to the actual perception of the movement,” he added. “Above all, there is now awareness of what is needed to develop girls from a physical, technical and behavioural point of view.”
Bar a wooden spoon campaign in 2017, in which Italy lost all five of their games in the Women’s Six Nations, the team has been on an upward curve since 2013, winning at least two games in six of the last seven Championships.
Captain Manuela Furlan agrees with her head coach that relative success on the pitch has been translated into greater awareness and participation numbers.
“Many girls are approaching this sport and maybe this is also thanks to our results,” she said.
“The number of girls playing and [number] of teams in Italy has been improving and it gives high hopes for the future.”
In the here and now, Italy’s rise to Women’s Six Nations challengers has been powered by the introduction of exciting, young talent. Di Giandomenico has been rewarded for selecting 13 uncapped players in his squad of 30 for the tournament.
“The generational handover is definitely among the positives,” he said. “The drive of the younger girls has brought even more energy to the continuous growth of the team.”
Furlan credits the new caps with making it “possible to have the team keep growing” and praised her younger team-mates for integrating well with the players she labels “veterans”.
That was certainly evident last time out as the Azzurre withstood a late fight back in Parma to seal a first Women's Six Nations defeat of Ireland, 29-27.
Asked how important that victory was, Furlan replied: “Really significant for how it arrived and for how much we wanted it. For sure it is a boost in confidence for the next games.”
It was all the more impressive given it had come on the back of a disappointing 3-3 draw with Wales in Lecce.
Italy had chances to win that game – a late Michela Sillari penalty drifted wide – but could have lost it had Jasmine Joyce’s solo try not been ruled out for a forward pass.
“From the analysis of the Welsh game we have understood the importance of increasing precision of the single and collective roles,” Di Giandomenico said.
“That match has been really useful, even though a bit frustrating.”
Exposure and encouragement
Victory over Ireland, therefore, restored confidence in the team’s game plan and their coach insists they will travel to Exeter determined to upset the odds.
“We work aiming to win all games,” he added. “We know every detail counts if we want to compete at the highest levels; as I have already said we focus on our performance, at the end of the day only what happens on the pitch will tell.”
Furlan is perhaps a little more realistic. “I don’t know if we can beat them, as England is maybe the best team in terms of shape,” she admitted.
“For sure we will try to give them a hard time.”
One more victory, whether against England in Exeter or France in Padua a week later, would confirm Italy’s best ever Women’s Six Nations performance. It would be a sweet moment for the team’s captain.
“It would be a great reason for pride and satisfaction for all the hard work done in the last few years, a good chance to give exposure to the Italian movement and maybe an encouragement for the younger girls.”