Italy players fighting for World Cup spots in 4 matches
MILAN (AP) — With the rugby World Cup less than a year away, Italy captain Sergio Parisse knows that the November tests have an added significance for everyone.
The Azzurri travel to the United States to play Ireland in Chicago on Nov. 3, before returning to Italy for matches against Georgia, Australia and New Zealand.
Despite playing against two of the southern hemisphere's biggest sides, Parisse insists the players only have victory on their minds.
"As players we have just one simple aim: to give our all and win. To play to win every match. Otherwise it would be useless to train and prepare, just to play," Parisse said at a news conference in Milan on Wednesday.
"These matches are very important for us, especially because there is a World Cup around the corner and everyone has the desire to play for their chance to get a ticket on the plane to Japan for the World Cup. We have a great responsibility, the staff have a great responsibility and the chance to see who the lucky lads will be who will go to the World Cup next year."
Italy kicks off its World Cup campaign against Namibia on Sept. 22 next year. It also plays South Africa, New Zealand and the repechage winner in Pool B.
Italy has competed in every World Cup but has never made it out of the pools. However, great strides have been made since former Ireland international Conor O'Shea was appointed coach in March 2016.
"We have done great work and a lot of good things in these past seasons," O'Shea said. "The two franchises are winning many games, our Under-21 team is up there with the best in the world, the level of our youngsters continues to grow. ... But now it's not enough for us to be competitive: we want to win."
The country's two franchises, Benetton and Zebre, are indeed reaping the benefits of the work of O'Shea and the federation and that is beginning to have a knock-on effect on the national team too.
"I have seen different cycles in the national team, it's been a long time that I've been here, and I have to say that personally I have never seen the quantity and especially the quality of players that we have now," said Parisse, who made his international debut in 2002 and has been Italy captain for 11 years.
"That's certainly down to the work that has been done for several years, especially in the past two and a half years by Conor and his staff. We can't be anything but positive. Certainly it's a process and the most important thing is that the players believe in this process. We are convinced that we will get results and great joy."
While the matches against Australia and the All Blacks might attract the most interest, it is the matches against Ireland and Georgia which will perhaps be the most significant.
O'Shea has named a young and relatively inexperienced side for the trip to the U.S. to face the reigning Six Nations champions. Exeter center Michele Campagnaro will captain Italy for the first time and is the only player not from Benetton or Zebre.
Georgia sits just above Italy in the rankings and there have been calls for them to replace the Azzurri in the Six Nations.
"There are four important matches but one of them more than the others: that against Georgia in Florence," Italian rugby federation president Alfredo Gavazzi said.
"But I don't want to fall into the controversy started by someone last year, when it was said that Georgia deserved more than us to be in the Six Nations. It will be very important to show our value in respect to the Georgians."
Italy has lost all its matches against Australia and New Zealand. The last time it played the All Blacks — who have won the past two World Cups — Italy lost by more than 50 points, two years ago in Rome.
"Beating them is almost impossible, and I stress almost," Parisse said.