ROME (Reuters) - On the face of it, Italy’s 2019 Six Nations campaign ended much like those before it.
A final-day defeat to France in Rome left them bottom of the table, having lost every game for the fourth year in a row. To make matters worse, it extended their losing run in the competition to 22 matches, a new tournament record.
However, behind the unpleasant statistics was a commendable performance that could – and arguably should – have ended their losing run as they squandered numerous golden chances.
Captain Sergio Parisse was left in tears of frustration at the result and head coach Conor O’Shea was visibly exasperated by his side’s inability to turn pressure into points and bring home the first Six Nations win of his tenure.
Belief in the Irishman’s project remains strong and the success of Benetton, who last season became the first Italian club to reach the Pro14 play-offs, provided evidence of good work being done behind the scenes.
But hard luck stories and the promise of a brighter future will not help Italy much in a World Cup pool featuring two of the pre-tournament favourites, South Africa and New Zealand.
Italy need to harden up a soft-bellied defence and become more accurate in attack if they are to stand any chance against the southern hemisphere powerhouses.
Their warm-up matches did little to inspire confidence as they fell to heavy defeats away to Ireland, France and England, although they comfortably beat Russia at home.
Italy possess a talented squad.
The electric Matteo Minozzi has returned from injury and Gloucester flanker Jake Polledri has made a promising start to his international career, while there is no shortage of experience thanks to the inclusion of veterans Leonardo Ghiraldini, Alessandro Zanni and skipper Sergio Parisse, who is heading to his fifth and final World Cup.
O’Shea led Italy to their first victory over South Africa in 2016 but otherwise his side have fallen short of big wins.
They trailed Australia by one point in the dying minutes of a 2017 test before shipping two late tries, they lost by two points to Scotland in 2018 and their lack of a clinical edge cost them victory against France this year.
Progression from Pool B looks highly unlikely. But, as Japan proved with their momentous win over South Africa in 2015, upsets are possible when the pressure is on.
Editing by Peter Rutherford