Nick Mallett has a "Friends, Romans, countrymen" demeanour, whether he is talking matters of state or what he wants on his plate at a press conference lunch. "I lived in France for 12 years and they never serve cold salad on a hot dish," Mallett opined as he stood in the queue for the buffet at the Hurlingham Club. If only the English-born, South African-reared Italy coach could serve up a pair of quality half-backs as easily as his lettuce was parted from his fish pie.
There were a few stifled chokes when Mallett mooted the idea of the flanker (and sometime wing) Mauro Bergamasco starting at scrum-half when Italy and England kick off the 2009 Six Nations' Championship at Twickenham on Saturday. The likelier choice is Pablo Canavosio and, in any case, the shock measure has been forced by injuries to other No 9s. Even more crucial to Mallett is the continuing search for a goal-kicking fly-half, a painful five years since Diego Dominguez retired.
This time last season the coach – then setting out on his debut campaign with the Azzurri after great success with South Africa and Stade Français – pinned his colours to the mast of Andrea Masi, a converted centre. Masi gave it up as a bad job after the Six Nations and next in line, after an experiment with the Australian-born Luke McLean, who remains an alternative, was Andrea Marcato.
The 25-year-old from Treviso is, according to Mallett, "very quiet, but then so was Dan Carter when he started out", but he appears to have more bottle than a crate of Chianti. He was Italy's full-back throughout last year's Six Nations, kicked the winning drop-goal against Scotland, then put over a last-minute conversion for a 13-12 win on tourin Argentina.
Marcato took over as Italy's No 10 during the autumn. He is 6ft and just under 13 stones – and Mallett will tell you the rest. "I'll go with Marcato for the first two Six Nations games and I've said to him I'd like him to go right through. He's a very good goal-kicker and he has the ability, a bit like Ronan O'Gara, to work out kicking angles and control a game.
"He can tackle, though he's not like a Butch James who will knock you off your feet. And he's got a nice left- and right-hand pass. He's a sweet guy, he hasn't got an aggressive bone in his body, but he gets over mistakes quickly. And he is Italian-born, which is important.
"Rugby is a gladiatorial sport and you have got to go out there with something in your belly." And not just lettuce.