Mallett's underdogs in desperate need of a leg-up

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The Independent Online

The bitter withdrawal of the Italian Rugby Federation (FIR) from negotiations to join the Magners League was the last thing Italy coach Nick Mallett needed on the eve of the Six Nations Championship. To the coach of the perennial underdogs, any leg-up would have been welcome.

An FIR statement accused the Irish, Scottish and Welsh organisers of increasing their financial demands at an unacceptably late stage of talks aimed at admitting two Italian "super-clubs". "It wouldn't have made a difference to the 30 players going to the next World Cup – I know who they are already – but it should be in everyone's interests for Italian rugby to become more competitive," said Mallett, who had toiled over a detailed analysis of how schools, academies and amateur clubs would underpin Magners League inclusion.

"The plan was based on what Ireland and Scotland have done very successfully. Italy's players and coaches are desperate to get better competition and the Celtic League seemed most feasible. It was a no-brainer. You can't just depend on turning out a Sergio Parisse now and again."

Parisse, the Italy captain, will miss the Six Nations injured and Italy will base their challenge on a strong front five. Their first match in Dublin next Saturday recalls the corresponding fixture two years ago. Ireland won 16-11 but were mauled all over Croke Park. That 2008 Championship – Mallett's first in charge – is considered by Giancarlo Dondi, the long-serving FIR chairman, as Italy's best yet.

More recently the Azzurri endured a run of 13 defeats, and, as ever, they are tipped by most to finish bottom of the table.

"Because the team are punching so far above their weight," said Mallett, "it's hard to say to the players that we'll win two or three games because they'll say 'which two, which three?' They aren't stupid, they know perfectly well how good the opposition are. So you set different goals. If I was coaching France I'd say this is a competition we should win. With Italy, you can judge a successful Six Nations on how hard you were to beat."

Italy: One to watch

Alessandro Zanni A diamond in the rough for his club Treviso, the flanker who turns 26 today could be the missing link between Italy's X-rated front five and D-list back line. Star No 8 and captain Sergio Parisse is out injured for the duration, so the distinctively curly-haired Zanni will bear a bigger burden.