Rugby-Italy old boys under pressure to perform

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By Toby Davis LONDON, Sept 5 (Reuters) - After a player strike, a poor Six Nations and a precipitous fall down the world rankings, Italy's preparations for the Rugby World Cup could hardly have been more difficult. That they will also be without first-choice flyhalf Kelly Haimona in Pool D alongside France and Ireland with only the top two qualifying means their hopes of success look slim. Things started to look bleak for Italy as their Six Nations campaign turned sour with thumping defeats by France and Wales and tensions in the camp have been bubbling away ever since. Italy's Federation president Alfredo Gavazzi said he was "tired of Italy's pensioners" in a jibe at senior members of the squad after they slid to 15th in the rankings below Georgia, Japan, Tonga and Fiji. Gavazzi was reported to have tried to reduce players' appearance fees in favour of a system of win bonuses, prompting the squad to down tools shortly after arriving at a World Cup warm-up camp. A settlement was reached, but the incident will have done little to help coach Jacques Brunel craft a stable and harmonious environment in the lead-up to the tournament. Frenchman Brunel, who will be standing down after the World Cup, has made efforts to turn Italy into an expansive side. Hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini, however, has said they still lack the mental strength to survive setbacks and prop Martin Castrogiovanni has claimed the side needs a psychologist. There are genuine talents in the Italy squad, however, none more important than 31-year-old captain Sergio Parisse, who could be set for his last World Cup and will want to go out with a bang. The Stade Francais number eight is widely considered to be one of the game's best in his position and his ability to get past the gain-line will be crucial to any Italian success. Despite Gavazzi's pensioners jibe, there are also some bright young Italian talents emerging like wingers Giovanbattista Vendetti and Leonardo Sarto and centre Luca Morisi. But any positivity on the playing side is likely to be offset by the absence of New Zealand-born Haimona, who will miss out after sustaining a broken arm in Italy's Six Nations finale against Wales. Haimona had harboured hopes of returning at some point during their pool fixtures, where they also face Romania and Canada, but he failed to make the cut when the squad was announced. (Editing by Ed Osmond)