Italy

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World Ranking: 11 Prediction: 5th

THE INSIDE VIEW

ALESSANDRO TRONCON

Age: 31

Position: Scrum-half

Club: Treviso

Debut: 07/05/94 v Spain Caps: 85 Tries: 15

What is your first memory of the Five Nations as a boy? I used to enjoy watching the French side play, especially Serge Blanco.

What is your abiding memory of your Six Nations debut? Winning against Scotland in Rome in our first Six Nations game.

What has been your best moment in the Six Nations? That win against Scotland.

And the worst? Any games that I've missed.

And the funniest? When we win!

What was Italy's best performance last year? Against Scotland, though I was injured for that game.

What do you need to improve? There are quite a lot of things we need to improve on as a side, but we can only get better playing against quality sides like our opponents in the Six Nations.

What are Italy's prospects for the tournament this year? I think we can do well, though it will be harder for us than in other years as the overall standard is much higher.

If you don't win it, who will? England and France are the obvious favourites, but Wales and Ireland are both capable of springing a surprise.

Which young player will catch the eye this year? Our flanker Silvio Orlando, although this could be the tournament of Mauro Bergamasco.

Who is the hardest hitter in the world right now? There are too many big tacklers around to single one out.

Who is the best player in the world? Schalk Burger, the South African flanker. He has so much enthusiasm for the game.

Which is your favourite Six Nations venue? Saint-Denis, where France play.

And the most intimidating crowd on the Six Nations circuit? The Welsh.

Will a Grand Slam be completed this season? I don't think so, as there are three or four teams of a similar standard.

CULTURE CORNER

What is your favourite...

Book? I can't think off the top of my head.

Film? Vacanze di Natale ("Christmas Holidays").

Band? I like house music, so there isn't really a band.

TV programme? I like the Sailing Channel (right).

2 KEY QUESTIONS

1Are the best players fully on board? The Azzurri, bless them, have made enormous strides since taking their place at the top table of European rugby in 2000. They have beaten Scotland and Wales, they have stretched France to the limit, they have played England off the park for an hour before bowing to the inevitable. But they do not have so many top-drawer players that they can afford to see a couple of them disappear in a strop. Alessandro Troncon, their scrum-half, and Mauro Bergamasco, their wonderful flanker, have been known to flounce out in clouds of talcum powder. If Italy are to prosper this year, they need all hands on deck.

2Will they ever win away from home? The Stadio Flaminio is doing its job for the Italians, who are rarely anything less than a handful there on Six Nations occasions. But to make the most of themselves they must somehow squeeze out a result on the road. Twickenham must be counted a venue too far; a couple of years ago, the Azzurri played brilliantly for an hour and still lost 40-5. But Murrayfield is an obvious possibility - the last time they played there, they were desperately unlucky to lose - and if they manage to inflict further misery on a Scottish side they beat in Rome last season, another long road will finally be behind them. They deserve no less.

HIGHS AND LOWS

GRAND SLAMS None.

OUTRIGHT WINNERS None.

WOODEN SPOONS 2001, 2002.

IF ITALY MADE MUSIC THEY'D BE... MARIA CALLAS

Petty and vindictive, but frequently compelling and always on form when the emotional current is in flood tide. Strange to relate, Callas could be described in precisely the same terms. Sometimes, the great prima donna failed to turn up - Italy's rugby supporters know the feeling - and when she did show, her great performances usually ended in tears. The Azzurri regard this as their lot in life.

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