With a solitary win over regular wooden-spoon rivals Scotland, Nick Mallett did not disappoint in his maiden Six Nations as Italy coach, but he did not surpass expectations either.
Results-wise, the campaign is a step back from last season, when the Azzurri secured their best showing of two wins under his predecessor Pierre Berbizier.
From the start, however, the South African said that his first Six Nations would be tough, as he set about getting to know his players and instilling the style of play he wanted in them.
Competitive performances were what he most wanted to see and, apart from the 47-8 drubbing in Wales in the third game, he has grounds to be satisfied even though his men finished at the bottom of the table.
The Azzurri lost by five points to Ireland in Dublin in their opener, the 23-19 defeat to England in the second game was their best result against the former world champions, and they pushed France hard in Paris last week before going down 25-13.
”Every year the Six Nations is difficult for Italy. We don’t have many players of a good level to choose from,” Mallett told reporters after the 23-20 win over Scotland.
”I wanted to get an improvement in this Italian team after the World Cup and, despite some disappointments and some very negative press reporting, I think the team did very well.”
Filling the problem position of flyhalf and giving more variety to Italy’s game were two of the main goals the former Springboks boss set himself.
He tackled the first issue by dropping the inconsistent Ramiro Pez and switching Andrea Masi from centre to stand-off.
The results have not been convincing.
The 26-year-old’s distribution, which was fair for most of tournament, was dreadful against the Scots and he has also had some problems kicking for field position in the unfamiliar role.
However, Mallett seems intent on continuing with the experiment, in part because of the solidity Masi gives in defence.
He rejected the option of using fullback Andrea Marcato at flyhalf, the position he plays for his club Treviso, because he is too slender.
He admits, however, that it will hard for Masi to perfect his playmaking skills, given that his club Biarritz are unlikely to use him at standoff.
”Over the five games, Masi has alternated good things with less good things,” Mallett said.
”In this last game, he didn’t satisfy me but it isn’t easy to turn yourself into a flyhalf.
”The problem with Marcato is that he only weighs 82 kilos. It is important to give Masi games [in this position]. It is a shame he doesn’t play number 10 for his club.”
Italy still have work to do in terms of developing a style that is less reliant on forward power but Mallett believes progress is being made.
”We have produced some very, very good backline moves. We beat France on the outside three times and that does happen for many teams and it hasn’t ever happened for Italy,” he said.
”I’m not saying we’ve got the best backline in the Six Nations, we haven’t, but we’ve certainly got a backline that’s improving.
”I believe very strongly that Masi is player who is improving as well and that over time we’ll be able to provide the variety I’m looking for”. – Reuters