Six Nations 2021: 'Really exciting' young guns can ignite Italian rugby - Ian McKinley

Paolo Garbisi
20-year-old fly-half Paolo Garbisi has established himself as Italy's starting 10 since making his debut last October
Six Nations 2021: Italy v Ireland
Venue: Stadio Olimpico, Rome Date: Saturday, 27 February Kick-off: 14:15 GMT
Coverage: Live on BBC Radio 5 Live Sports Extra, BBC Radio Ulster, BBC Sport website and app. Live text coverage and video highlights on BBC Sport website and app.

The emergence of exciting young half-backs Paolo Garbisi and Stephen Varney has injected a new wave of optimism into Italian rugby, says former Azzurri fly-half Ian McKinley.

Garbisi, 20, and Varney, 19, have been two of Italy's stand-out players in the opening two Six Nations matches and while both games have ended in heavy defeat, many believe Italy are a side showing some promising signs.

"I think if you're an Italian rugby fan, it is really exciting," said McKinley.

"They can really build around them going forward."

Defeat by Ireland, the only other side without a win in this year's Six Nations, on Saturday would be Italy's 30th consecutive loss in the tournament.

Dubliner McKinley, who won nine Italian caps having moved there in 2012, does not believe the young stars would be affected by such a milestone.

"I think whenever you come into a new environment you're looking to create your own bit of history, which can only be a good thing for Italy," he said.

"When you've got these young guys, they're trying to write their own history. They can go in knowing that they have total freedom in expressing themselves."

Stephen Varney
Wales-born scrum-half Stephen Varney made his first Italy start against his native country in December

Fly-half Garbisi has in particular caught the eye following his rapid rise. He made his international debut against Ireland last October having only made his first senior appearance for Benneton in the Pro14 earlier that month.

"The fact that he's got more caps at international level than club level tells you everything," said McKinley.

"They really do rate him so highly and why wouldn't you? He's got all the talent to go on, and at such a young age to have a real mature head on his shoulders is really special.

"He's a very un-Italian player. A lot of Italian guys look to do the most extraordinary things under extreme pressure when it's not really the necessary thing to do.

"He seems to just make the right decisions. He's got one hell of a left foot on him, he's got a good eye for a gap, kicks his points and he's a very exciting prospect."

'Why should Sexton step aside?'

While the emergence of Garbisi has given fresh hope for Italy's future, Ireland's issues at fly-half continue to concern fans with Johnny Sexton, the oldest player in this year's tournament, still the clear first choice in the position.

With neither Billy Burns nor Ross Byrne doing enough to nail down their place in the pecking order, real questions remain over the future of the jersey.

Leinster's Harry Byrne has trained with the side in recent weeks while Joey Carbery, whose career has been plagued by serious injury, is making a return to action this weekend for Munster after more than a year out.

"The question is when is Johnny going to stop? But until there is a viable option really, or people are pushing him, why should he step aside?" said McKinley, who played with Sexton at Leinster.

"As you get a bit older, your game adapts and you might think differently about it but his doesn't seem to. He just wants to win, to make the most of the opportunity.

"People have been calling for younger guys like Harry Byrne and [Munster scrum-half] Craig Casey maybe to start a few games for Ireland but my argument to that would be, how many games have they started for their province? How many crucial moments have they played? International rugby can be fairly unforgiving at times."

Having missed Ireland's defeat by France with a head injury, Sexton will return to captain the side in Rome as part of an all-Leinster backline.

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