By Alasdair Mackenzie
ROME (Reuters) - Stephen Varney believes Italy's young squad should not be judged by the failures of previous Azzurri teams and says that calls for a Six Nations reshuffle will only motivate him and his team mates.
The 19-year-old, who will start at scrumhalf against England on Saturday, made his championship debut when coach Franco Smith picked the youngest side of the opening round, with an average age of 24 years and 297 days, in a 50-10 defeat to France.
The crushing scoreline marked Italy's 28th consecutive Six Nations defeat, a run stretching back to 2015, and led the likes of former Wales captain Sam Warburton to back the introduction of promotion and relegation to the tournament due to concerns over Italy's ability to compete.
But Gloucester player Varney feels some of the criticism of Smith’s new-look Italy side has been unfair.
“A year ago, it was a totally different squad,” he told Reuters.
“People view Italy as a losing nation, but it’s a different generation coming through now. We’re new to it and we’re highly motivated to win because of the past, but it’s a totally different squad to what it was 12 or 24 months ago.
“I’ve seen a few things on social media. At the end of the day it’ll motivate us to work harder and want to go out and win even more."
Smith named a young and inexperienced squad for the 2021 Six Nations, with an average age of 24 and featuring 19 players with 10 caps or fewer.
Wales-born Varney, who qualifies for Italy through his mother, has been in the Italian set-up since Under-18 level.
He was part of an Italy side that defeated Wales in last year’s Under-20 Six Nations alongside two other players who have also gone on to earn a starting spot in the senior side, flyhalf Paolo Garbisi and fullback Jacopo Trulla.
Eight of the players who will start at Twickenham on Saturday are still in single figures for caps but Varney is convinced of their ability, even if he admits the speed of their promotion to the senior side was unexpected.
“Personally, I didn’t think it would come this early, but Franco is looking towards the next World Cup so it’s good to give us some exposure in this Six Nations and in the next three years," he said.
"It was clear playing in the Under-20 squad that there were a lot of good players and future stars."
Italy face a daunting task this weekend away to an England side smarting from their first home defeat to Scotland in 38 years.
The Azzurri were soundly beaten in Rome, conceding seven tries to an impressive French side who are among the favourites to win the championship this year, but Varney did see glimpses of promise.
“I didn’t think we were great at times,” he said.
“We lacked a lot of execution at critical moments. In big parts of the game we would knock the ball on or make a mistake, we can’t make errors like that in a Test match game.
“But there were plenty of positives, especially in attack. We attacked well and broke through the French defence quite often, but we need to work on our defence.”
(Reporting by Alasdair Mackenzie; Editing by Toby Davis)