- 20 Sep 07, 12:16 PM
Paris - It is not only England it seems who are struggling to translate training-ground effort into match-day mettle.
The good news for Scotland supporters is that Italy are proving equally inept.
Wednesday’s laboured victory over Portugal was the Azzurri’s third dismal display in a row after their ‘non-match’ (according to their coach Pierre Berbizier) against the All Blacks (a 14-76 defeat) and a painful 24-18 win over Romania.
The fact they have played those three games in the space of 12 days may have something to do with it.
Just as in 2003, the Italians have been on the rough end of the tournament schedulers’ machinations, with less time to recover and prepare than the major nations.
But it appears the biggest problem is between their ears.
“We are not concentrating enough, and we played the same way against New Zealand and Romania,” their genial prop Martin Castrogiovanni, he of the flowing locks and raffish beard, told me in the bowels of the Parc des Princes after Wednesday’s game.
“I think it is all in our heads. We are really bad at the moment. We didn’t respect what the coach told us in training, we were nervous, we didn’t play well at all.”
They started brightly enough, and had a try on the board within three minutes when Andrea Masi sliced through the Portuguese midfield with ease.
We sat back and waited for more. Instead we got a litany of handling errors, knock-ons, wayward passes and poor decisions.
Italy had to wait another 69 minutes for their second try, and couldn’t even muster a bonus point for scoring four.
That is not to decry another marvellous effort from Portugal, who knocked the Italians out of their stride and took great encouragement once they realised that opponents who had beaten them 83-0 last year did not have the weapons to hurt them greatly provided they made their tackles and played field position well.
But Italy appeared distracted, giving the impression they didn’t really want to get out of second gear against these pesky Portuguese, knowing their greatest challenge awaits a week on Saturday against Scotland in St Etienne.
Castrogiovanni acknowledged that after a breakthrough Six Nations campaign, in which they recorded two wins in the tournament for the first time and their first away from Rome (at Murrayfield), expectations inside and outside the squad had changed.
“We have some outside pressures and we are not good at living with that,” he said. “In Italy after the Six Nations all the people expect us to have a massive World Cup, and maybe that is not good for us.
“We think we are good but we don’t play so good, I think that is the bottom line. But we have a good group, we are all friends, and we need to remember how we played in the Six Nations, where we had some exciting games.”
Italy have nine days in which to come up with some answers, but excitement may be the key.
They clearly found it difficult to get up for a game against the All Blacks that even they probably accepted they had little chance of winning, while being expected to deliver efficient, comfortable wins against Romania and Portugal also didn’t appear to sit easily with the Italian psyche.
Castrogiovanni declared Scotland will start favourites in St Etienne, and it is difficult to dismiss that as mind games given the form of both sides so far.
But the Leicester prop, player of the year in England’s Premiership last season, hinted that Italy will be far more comfortable when they will need to summon their innate passion and fervour for the fray against Scotland, rather than try to think their way around a physically committed underdog such as Romania or Portugal.
“We both want to win, but I think it will be decided by who wants to win most,” he added. “I don’t think it will be so technical, it is going to be a really hard game and all about heart. It is going to be really emotional.”
Indeed. For Italy a place in the quarter-finals of the World Cup beckons for the first time, a tangible marker of their progress since joining the Six Nations in 2000.
For Scotland, a proud record of never failing to reach at least the last eight is on the line. Regardless of Sunday’s result against New Zealand, qualification was always likely to boil down to 80 minutes at the Stade Geoffrey-Guichard from the moment the draw was made.
“We have one game left now, one chance, and we need to take that chance,” Castrogiovanni added. “I don’t mind if we play another ugly match and win.”
Hmm, sound familiar? For England in Nantes on Saturday, read Italy in St Etienne a week on Saturday.
The prospect of redemption can be a persuasive force in rugby.
Bryn Palmer is the BBC Sport website’s rugby union editor.