After achieving their best-ever finish of second in the Women’s Six Nations in 2019, these are exciting times for Italian rugby.

Now ranked sixth in the world, the Azzurre have been on a wonderful journey under coach Andrea di Giandomenico and are starting to consistently deliver when it matters.

Except for the wooden spoon campaign in 2017, they have won at least two games in six of the last seven Six Nations Championships, and ninth place at Rugby World Cup 2017 was their best in the tournament yet, 15 years on from their last appearance in the showpiece event.

That upward curve that will be tested this November, though, with matches against Japan, at home in L'Aquila this weekend, and then England and Scotland away.

For Manuela Furlan, a good set of results is needed if they want to continue to be seen as serious players in the international game.

“This is the challenge if we want to be talked about as a team to be feared rather than the ‘surprise’ team of the year,” said the Azzurre captain.

New blood

Nearly half of this year’s Six Nations squad made their debuts during the Championship and Furlan, a 31-year-old veteran of 68 caps, says they are now reaping the rewards of Di Giandomenico’s bold selection.

“It's a result of the work started by Andrea, the coach, in 2010. His ability is to always have a united squad by introducing new players to counter the loss of others.

“The confidence he showed in us from the very beginning made the difference. It’s thanks to him we got to achieve these performances.

“Our strength is the squad itself, the determination we put into everything we do and especially the hunger we have to show our worth.”

No-nonsense openside Giada Franco, 23, is one of the players successfully blooded by Di Giandomenico in the last 18 months.

With youth comes no fear and Franco is preparing to tackle the next three weeks head-on.

“All three matches will be challenging and different, I’m sure,” said the Harlequins player who has transitioned to the test arena with ease, scoring four tries in 11 internationals.

“Italy beat Japan at the last World Cup, but we know they’re a good side and are still growing and developing as a team.

“As for England, we know they’re one of the best teams but we’re confident about the strength of our side, and if we play well, we know we can make it very difficult for them.”

Primary goal

Furlan is reluctant to quantify what would constitute a good November in terms of results, preferring instead to focus on the team’s performance. Continuing in the same rich vein of form can only stand them in good stead for the regional Rugby World Cup 2021 qualification tournament next September.

Ireland, Scotland and the winner of the Rugby Europe Women's Championship 2020 stand between them and an automatic ticket to New Zealand 2021.

“We always look at our performances, game by game, in an attempt to get to the qualification tournament in the best possible way,” the full-back said.

“Qualification would mean confirming our recent results and maintain our presence in the tournament having only just returned (after a 15-year absence) in 2017

“So, yes, in the long run, it (qualification) is our primary goal; it's impossible not to think about it but it should not become an obsession.”

The importance of the November programme is not lost on Franco, either.

“These tests are fundamental to us as a team. We need time together to prepare as well as possible this year if we want to reach and qualify for the World Cup,” she said.

“To play in a World Cup is my dream, I remember watching all of the games at the last World Cup of 2017.

“For Italy as a team, I think it will confirm how good we are as a group over the last few years.”

Photo: FIR