|The Stadio Olimpio in Rome will host tests in 2014|
Italian sources indicate that the Italian international rugby team is set to play eleven test matches this year. The format will be unchanged with Italy playing five matches against European opposition in the Six Nations in February and March followed by a three match intercontinental tour in June and three home tests in November.
Although the quantity changes slightly the format is the same as other Six Nations teams and also comparable to that of the four Tier One members of the Rugby Championship. Scotland, for instance, will play a fourth test in June while England and Wales will host an extra test match each in November. Australia and New Zealand will also play additional tests including one amongst themselves and other matches on the road.
New Zealand is set to face the USA in a history making match that has been made possible by the USA having a vastly improved test team, improved administration and a common sponsor to that of the All Blacks. Indeed cries from Fiji to host the All Blacks in 2013 were ignored leaving Fijian rugby and its supporters less than impressed after a request to celebrate 100 years of Fijian rugby instead saw Fiji face a veteran team known as the Classic All Blacks.
Fiji´s inability to secure the fixture was nothing new. Indeed there has never been a test match between Fiji and New Zealand outside of New Zealand. All previous visits of New Zealand sides to Fiji have been in non-internationals. The same holds true for both Samoa and Tonga while Australia has also never played a test match in the Pacific Islands. This will not change in 2014 nor will it for the forseeable future. But Fiji and Samoa will get to host Italy as will Japan.
Italy´s three match tour will be rare in that Italy can target a perfect three wins from three matches and it can also play test match rugby in the Pacific Islands. Missing from the tour is a test against Tonga with the reason being that Tonga lacks the resources to host international rugby. As such it is unable to secure a test against Italy as was the case against Scotland in 2012. Tonga is in a similar position to Russia which rather than host tests in November plays in the U.K. against Tier Two opposition such as Japan and the USA.
With Scotland touring in 2012, Italy in 2014 and Wales confirmed to do so in 2017 there is a light at the end of the tunnel for the Pacific Islands. It showcases the substantial improvements that have been made from the unions and from the IRB. Indeed between Rugby World Cup 1999 and the 2012 test against Scotland Fiji´s only other home test against a Tier One Union was against Italy in 2006. Samoa was slightly better in hosting Italy in 2000 and Ireland in 2003 while Tonga has not hosted a Tier One side since Ireland in 2003.
Italy´s 2014 June tour illustrates that European Tier One nations are doing what the neighbors from Australia and New Zealand fail to. The argument that the Islands lack the facilities to cope with such fixtures is therefore not strong nor is the suggestion that the teams are not of the required level to host a Rugby World Cup champion. Indeed New Zealand faced Japan in Tokyo in 2013. Flying from Auckland to Apia is a lot cheaper than flying from Auckland to Toronto which occurred in 2013 with the Maori All Blacks playing in Canada and the USA. Italy´s tour underlines the real politics at play preventing Australia or New Zealand from touring - they simply do not wish to do so.
Italy is playing in the Pacific Islands because of ability. Italy does not have a notable record against Rugby Championship sides. Italy has defeated Argentina only but has a record of five wins from nineteen matches played against Los Pumas. The Italians therefore have a lot to gain from playing against Tier Two nations and of the three two finished 2013 with a higher IRB World Ranking than Italy. The same is not true of the first and third ranked New Zealand and Australia but they are located close to the Pacific Islands and could make room for one match each in the Pacific Islands after playing their three tests in June. At the same time there is an urgent need for Georgia to host the likes of Italy and Scotland and efforts ought to focus on making this happen before the World Cup.
The tour for Italy has the potential to go either way with Italy having the ability to defeat all of Japan, Fiji and Samoa but also conceivably losing two or three of the matches. In November Italy will be targeting two wins out of three with Italy set to host Argentina, South Africa and a Pacific Nation. The November 8 test could, in theory, be against any of Canada, Fiji, Japan, Samoa, Tonga and the USA as it is listed as being against a Pacific Nation. In theory the likely nation to face Italy on this date is Samoa whom Italy last hosted in 2009 but this will depend on the results of the Pacific Nations Cup as the winner of Fiji v Samoa v Tonga and Japan v Canada v USA will face-off in the Pacific Nations Cup final in November, presumably on November 8 to open the November internationals. For the record Tonga played in Italy in 2012 and Fiji did so in 2013. Canada has not played in Italy since 2004 and would be an option worth considering and likely to be just as marketable.
Italy Rugby 2014
February 1 Wales v Italy, Cardiff
February 8 France v Italy, Paris
February 22 Italy v Scotland, Rome
March 8 Ireland v Italy, Dublin
March 15 Italy v England, Rome
June 7 Fiji v Italy, Suva
June 14 Samoa v Italy, Apia
June 21 Japan v Italy, Tokyo
November 8 Italy v (Pacific Nation)
November 15 Italy v Argentina
November 22 Italy v South Africa