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.

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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.

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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.

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.

The Verdict

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.

Your Opinion

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

9 COMMENTS

  1. Hi George,

    i was a bit surprised of reading this article, i thought no one would have investigated this sort of data to draw a profile as you did, so thank you very much for your work

    your statement on the U20 is very accurate, the problem is that youngster need to grow gradually playing different level of rugby and this is not possible yet in italy:

    i draw the Kiwi’s style Pyaramid for Italy:

    National Team
    Franchises
    Eccellenza (Top Domestic championship)
    Serie A (second level)
    Serie B (thid level) and so on

    nice to note that a youngster academy plays regularly in the serie A

    the problem is that out of the U20 a youngster must develop his growth according to his need, but there is no connection between Pro14 franchise and Eccellenza clubs
    A player coming from an injury needs to get in touch with rugby gradually, step by step lifting the hardness of the game coherently with the progress he’s making from the injury
    This is by far the biggest problem inside italian rugby, and more important it looks like the Federation itself can’t or won’t handle the situation with some sort of bullying as happened in scotland and ireland

    Now our Pro 14 and 6N partners all have a program based on let the national team be at his top level, we are following this trend but not with the speed we should

    Conor Oshea might be an incredibly skilled DOR (actually, he’s not the DOR of Italy) but needs his army to have the right weapons to fight otherwise we’ll end up throwing stones against a nuclear bomb (november test against the all blacks)

    I personally see the italian experiment as something that needed to be addressed 20 years ago, the inclusion of an outsider in Tier 1 teams
    This experiment is teaching the entire world what the problems of climbing the cliff will be
    A country needs sport culture, organization, passion, economic return, infrastructure

    i really hope that we will see a good performing Italy in a few years, because the most avid fans are starting to lose patience in front of a motionless federation which can’t reform the system

    LOL, this comment is so long i could have written the article myself 😛

    • Hi, I totally agree with you, there is a too large gap between the Eccellenza’s level and the Top14, and also we struggle to give our U20’s players the opportunity to grow as fast as the other.
      The fact that neither Zebre nor Treviso have an Academy doesn’t help to close that gap, and also there is too little movement (both up and down) for players between Eccellenza and Top14.
      Last think that i found really worrying: let’s look at the best 4 “young” players for Italy in the last 6Ns: Minozzi, Negri, Polledri and Allan; only Minozzi came from the italian sistem.
      I really think that O’Shea and Aboud are doing great think to fix italian rugby, i hope we can be patient and give them time because it will take time, maybe other 4-5 years to really see the result.

    • Cheers for the brilliant feedback. Really interesting stuff.
      You’re absolutely right that the proper structures should have been put in place 20 years ago when Italy joined the 6 nations. Italy got in the tournament in the first place off the back of a string of good results against existing 5 nations teams. But when professionalism first started off it was easier for teams to be competitive with a not very developed structure. So it seems like Italy haven’t progressed at the rate of other nations as professionalism has really kicked in.
      I’m glad they look to be sorting themselves out and I do hope that the current staff and system are given time, because potentially the results won’t start to consistently come through for another 5 years.

    • Yeah I was thinking of hastily redrafting the article after after Glasgow thumped Zebre at the weekend! But one game doesn’t make a season and they have been a lot better this time around.
      Italy should have been almost out of sight at half time against Scotland. They do need to be more clinical and learn as a team how to close games out. But it was clear to see that there’s potential there in the Italian side.

    • Hi archie,
      You know nobody was expecting much from zebre as they actually have been closed down as a private club and have been taken on from the federation all of a sudden this summer, also new DOR and new staff
      I love the way they play rugby in the face of the first of the class and even after losing by 60 points you’ll listen in the post match interview “that’s the brand of rugby we want to play”, there is a project
      But as a project that started late in the summer the squad was not complete
      For instance, italian flanker Licata is a permit Player from an eccellenza club bit play misto of the time with the zebre because of financial issue that weren’t fixed because there was no time
      And there was no time because the federation didn’t patrol the situation of the private club zebre which actually bankrupted in the previous season
      As a proof of what i say, Glasgow second choice players gave 60 points to zebre second choice, because of low skilled depth

  2. Another excellent article, George, seriously good stuff – facts laced with opinion open to suggestion!! Brilliant. Good comments too.

    I’m an Aussie with Italian heritage so Italian rugby to me is a lot like the Socceroos, so much expectation to be world beaters but lacking player depth to field a highly competitive outfit across the field. Plenty of outstanding players in all positions (remember the Italian forward pack & then their backline in the ’80s & ’90s) but unable to find them in the same generation.

    I was a lot younger but I remember the hope when Italy entered 6 Nations that they would ride a huge development wave and become a global force, many believed it would happen within a decade, yet we’re now 20 years down the track & barely seen any improvement from the Italian national team.

    In contrast, Argentina 20 years ago compared to Argentina today. Enough said. What’s been the difference?

    At ’05 World Cup travelled to Canberra for three Italian games (tight loss to Wales, win over Tonga, win over Canada) – what a great tournament! – and since then they’ve really stagnated… just wandering your thoughts on what happened and why?

    PS: keep up the great work!

    • Hi Dan,

      in the 2007 world cup Italy was one penalty kick away from the quarter final…
      the last game of the pool was against scotland and finisched 18-16 for the highlanders thanks to the gold boot of Chris Patterson

      close result but don’t mean to negate your analysis which is quite accurate

    • Cheers Dan! Glad you liked it.
      You make a really good point about Argentina. They have consistently churned out some brilliant players over the past 20 years and have made 2 World Cup semis. They were on a pretty similar level to Italy around 20 years back. I don’t know in enough detail how different the rugby set up is in the two countries to understand why Argentina have made more progress. And I’m sure there are many factors at play apart from just the set up.
      I was scratching my head trying to think if I remember those World Cup games and I had to Wikipedia in the end. I think Superignazzio is right in saying that 07 was the closest they got to the quarters. Don’t think they’ve got much chance of getting there in 2019 given they have New Zealand and South Africa in their group. But I think 2019 would be too soon for them anyway. I’d be very interested to see where they’re at in 5 years time come the 2023 World Cup!

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