Italy coach John Kirwan is expecting this year's RBS 6 Nations campaign to be their most challenging since entering the competition six years ago.
The Azzurri have just three victories to their name from five seasons of action and Kirwan knows adding to that tally will be a difficult task.
"We have improved in the competition in the last few years," he said. "But every year is getting harder because our rivals are also getting stronger.
"Many teams have consolidated after the World Cup and although we have made improvements since then, so have they."
Italy took the scalp of Scotland in their debut year and produced a stunning display to beat Wales 30-22 two years ago.
Last year's 20-14 triumph over Scotland in Rome ensured they avoided the wooden spoon for the second consecutive year and earned Kirwan a contract until the end of the 2007
But Wales and Scotland have upped their games recently and Kirwan knows his side will have to work hard for victories.
"The teams closest to us in the past have been Wales and Scotland but Wales have done well since the World Cup and we have to play Scotland away from home," said the All Black legend.
"I think France and England are the likely candidates to win the tournament but I think the wildcard will be Wales.
"The important thing is our rivals really respect Italy now and that is very positive for me and my players."