Another Six Nations campaign, another set of defeats for the Azzuri. Delve a little deeper however and there are signs of life in Italian rugby.
With Parisse’s star fading and 17 straight Six Nations defeats, there appear to be few positives for Italian fans. But there is a quiet revolution going on beneath the surface, that may bear fruit in the national team within the next few years.
O’Shea has set the wheels in motion
Connor O’Shea is ever the optimist. His post-match press conferences have been infrequently of the post-defeat variety, but he is always confident that his team can improve. His role within Italian rugby extends far beyond the remit of the national team coach. The aim is not focused on the short-term goal of giving Italy a few wins at Test match level. It is to revolutionise Italian rugby from the ground up, in order to be consistently more competitive at the top.
Connor O’Shea lives equidistant to Italy’s two Pro14 clubs – Zebre and Benetton. He frequently travels between the two and has a hands-on approach to their development. There are also additional cogs in the O’Shea era backroom staff that are having an impact.
Steven Aboud, formerly of the Irish Rugby Union, has set about changing the academy structure in an effort to improve the performance of Italy’s age grade teams. Italian rugby has also brought Mike Catt on board in a coaching capacity. Both Keiran Crowley and Michael Bradley – head coaches of Benetton and Zebre respectively – have been credited with an improvement in the clubs’ recent upturn.
The restructuring and new coaching system could just be a reshuffle to another unsuccessful model. But there is tangible evidence that things are starting change within Italian rugby.
Under 20s Show Signs of Improvement
The Under 20s national team is one of the windows into the future of the senior national side. If you have consistently good performances at an under 20 level, the logic is that this should translate to good performances in the future for the full national side. If we take a look at the 2017 Under 20 World Rugby Championship, Italy finished 8th. They beat Ireland by a solitary point and lost to Wales and Scotland by the same one-point margin.
This would infer that the class of 2017 under 20s are of a similar standard to those three Six Nations countries. However, one good year of under 20s rugby does not necessarily mean guaranteed future success. U20s Teams are ever changing year on year, so one year of success is a golden generation at best. It remains to be seen whether age grade promise can be sustained and provide a continuous stream of top-grade talent to the full national side.
There are already positive signs from the class of 2018; they beat Wales and Scotland in this year’s U20 Six Nations competition. Additionally – despite playing 71 minutes with 14 men – they only narrowly lost 38-34 to Ireland. This all culminated in a 4th place finish. It will be interesting to see whether the good performances continue at this year’s U20 World Championship in France.
Pro14 Clubs Starting to Perform
Year upon year of lower table finishes were leading some supporters to question the worth of Italian involvement in the Pro14. Fast forward to this season and Benneton have won half of their games. In fact, this puts them at only one less win than the current playoff placed Cheetas. Zebre – on the verge of folding at the start of the season – have already won more games than the entire last season. They are still one of the weaker teams in the league. But they have been involved in a number of close games that they could have won. Zebre have also won plaudits for their offload rich style of enterprising rugby this year. We should be under no illusions that the Italian teams are suddenly world beaters. But the improvement from previous seasons is clear to see.
— Italrugby (@Federugby) March 24, 2018
The two professional clubs give a pathway to the higher echelons of the game for the promising youngsters coming through the youth teams. The Jaguares experiment in Argentina has proved that you can’t pick a successful national team from only one club side, so the continuation of the Zebre franchise was vital. Italian under 20 players coming through have the opportunity to develop their skills in a top professional competition.
Are any of those young players starting to make an impact on the national side?
Arguably one of the stand out players of the Six Nations was young Italian fullback Matteo Minozzi. At the age of 21, he has already shown his pedigree at international level with dazzling footwork and 4 tries during the Six Nations.
Another youngster who has impressed in the Six Nations is Sebastian Negri. As frequently noted by Steve and Gareth in The 1014 Six Nations reviews, he has really impressive tackle and carry stats. Some corners have already made comparisons with the great Parisse. Time will tell whether this heir apparent continues to deliver in the same capacity as the great number 8.
And are there any talents threatening to break through from the under 20s? Big things are expected of fly-half Antonio Rizzi, having shone in both the 2017 and 2018 U20 Six Nations. Italian fans will also be excited by the potential of towering lock Edoardo Iachizzi. With current options Zanni, Biagi and Budd all over 30, the national coaches will be eager to blood new talent in this position.
Italy as a country have several socioeconomic plus points which are indicative to good performances at international sports. They have a comparatively large population, a high GDP and good results in other international sports. And there are pre-existing rugby hotbeds – particularly in the north along the Po valley – that produce good player numbers. According to World Rugby, there are more rugby players in Italy than both Wales and Scotland.
There is also a clear hunger for rugby from spectators, particularly on the international stage. Despite defeat after defeat, over 60,000 people turned up for both of their home games in this year’s Six Nations. If all the pieces fall into place and the national team starts winning, who knows the heights that rugby could reach.
There is still a way to go yet and patience is key. France joined the home nations in 1910. Their first top place finish was in 1954 and their first outright championship win in 1959. Italy have now been in the Six Nations for 19 years. Given the current crop of youngsters, they should become much more competitive within the next 5 years. If a steady stream of talent can continue from the under 20’s to the national team, there is no reason why they shouldn’t become at some point a major player on the international stage.
Are you involved in Italian rugby? Are you an Eccellenza expert? This article barely scratches the surface on Italian rugby and I’d be delighted to hear from insiders involved in the game.
Author: George Wood
I am, and have always been, obsessed by sports. I have a particular interest in the development of rugby globally and spend hours watching, researching and reading about obscure rugby news and games from around the world.
I previously had a 6 year stint in China, where I set up an expat football team in Wuhan. I now reside in London, working as a statistical analyst, spending large amounts of my free time watching sports with my wife.
More of my rugby thoughts on Twitter @GeorgeWood9187