Italy look to Five Nations

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Dean Richards believes Italy are close to earning an invitation to compete in the Five Nations' championship.

The former England player was impressed by Milan, who forced his Leicester side to battle harder than expected for their 26-10 win in the opening round of the Heineken Cup.

In the two previous meetings between the sides in 1992 and 1993, the Tigers won comfortably by 40-24 and 53-7, but the Italians' vast improvement since those games nearly brought them victory at Welford Road.

Richards was quick to back the Italians' claim for a place in the northern hemisphere's premier competition. "The way they are playing at the moment, they could soon be in the Five Nations," he said.

"They have to sustain this level of skill and commitment for a while yet and provided they do that I don't see why they can't be included. They've certainly picked up a lot from where they were five or six years ago.

"Their ball-handling skills, vision and the way they think about the game is far better than it ever has been. The way they used to play was perhaps two years behind us. It's a bit like ourselves and the southern hemisphere, but Italy are now coming on strong and playing very well."