Watching Benetton and Zebre delivering positive results in the Guinness PRO14 this season has been a great lift for Italian rugby, however, scoreboards don’t always tell you the full story.
When I look at the wider picture for Italian rugby I think back to a meal I shared with Steve Hansen, head coach of New Zealand, before we played the All Blacks last November. Reflecting on his time in charge of Wales, Steve said: “All you do is what’s best for the future of the country, make a difference.”
Steve left Wales in 2004 having lost more games than he won, but he capped more than half a dozen players who would play a part in their Grand Slam not long afterwards. Now I’m certainly not predicting Italian title wins just yet, but it just shows you that success doesn’t arrive overnight.
We’re focused on laying the foundations and not merely papering over the cracks, because building a team, a squad and a national system takes time. It’s a journey of constant growth and although not everyone stays on until the finish, everyone can have an impact on where you end up.
To see the performances of Benetton and Zebre reflected in their results during the first six rounds of the Guinness PRO14 is no surprise to us. Already their combined tally of five wins is much greater than at this point last season where they had scored just one victory between them.
Those performances have resulted in, despite some injuries to big name players, some tough selection calls for the Italian national squad for our November Tests with Fiji, Argentina and South Africa. No coach enjoys telling a guy he’s been left out, but selection headaches are natural when the players raise the standards required to make the squad.
— Italrugby (@Federugby) September 25, 2017
It’s all evidence of the work being put in by Kieran Crowley (Benetton head coach) and Michael Bradley (Zebre head coach) and all of their support staff. It’s frustrating to hear pundits spout tired stereotypes about Italian rugby – you wonder if they even bother to ask what’s happening over here – but hopefully recent results will make them pay more attention.
In one year, Kieran has Benetton looking, feeling and smelling like a real rugby club again. Along with Fabio Ongaro, Marco Bortolami, Marius Goosen and Ezio Galon, the coaching at Benetton is creating confidence in the players much as it is at Zebre.
Given the circumstances surrounding the Italian Federation’s takeover of Zebre, Michael has done a tremendous job. Alongside Alessandro Troncon and Carlo Orlandi they are getting the most out of the club’s young players, who have made a really positive contribution already.
Players like Matteo Minozzi, Renato Giammarioli, Mattia Bellini and Giovanni Licata are making a real impact in a team that is playing with freedom and it’s not just a simple coaching fix. Some of it is due to the stability which the Federation’s takeover has provided to a club where, as one example, players were not always paid on time.
Imagine turning up to your job everyday while in the back of your mind you are worried about how to pay your mortgage or provide for your family? Previously that was a regular occurence and it tells you about the spirit of the Zebre players that their commitment never waned. That uncertainty has been removed and there is a renewed enthusiasm and energy within the club and we’re seeing that on the pitch. There may be a smaller squad than is necessary but it is a squad that will grow and has a future.
As a rugby nation since the advent of professionalism in 1995 Italy has not kept pace with the countries we regularly face at club and international level and the work we’re doing now is long overdue.
However, we cannot worry about the past, our job is to impact the future of Italian rugby. We have a long way to catch up, but in the year since I arrived alongside guys such as Mike Catt (backs coach) and Steve Aboud (head of elite development) we’re starting to see some early results from the pathways and support network that had been established already.
We don’t have the financial resources of other unions, so in our systematic approach we have to make priorities and fitness would certainly be at the top of the list. To tackle that we’ve brought in Pete Atkinson, who has worked with Saracens, the English Institute of Sport and the English Cricket Board, to head up our strength and conditioning.
We can see the players at both clubs are getting fitter and the numbers prove that Benetton and Zebre are scoring more than their opponents in the final 20 minutes of games. In Round 6, Benetton scored a bonus-point try in the final two minutes from a period of play that took 20 phases and went 70 metres. From a fitness and skill perspective that’s really satisfying to witness.
But we’re only scratching the surface of where we need to be from a conditioning standpoint. We’ve introduced monthly meetings through Francesco Ascione where the coaches and team managers of both Benetton and Zebre along with Pete Atkinson, Steve Aboud, Maurizio Zaffiri and myself come together to ensure we’re constantly improving across all areas and aligning where we want to get to. We’ll never do the same thing as we are preparing for two different competitons but we are all working for the same end goal.
When you can see the initial strides taken in terms of fitness, we’re left saying ‘wow, imagine how the players will perform when they get to their physical peak’ and they will know that that is a long way off but it makes it exciting.
In elite sport everyone is seeking out marginal gains or the ‘one-per centers’, but at the moment we feel we can make great strides in our fitness, mental strength and our skillsets. For club and country we also want to be fit, energetic and produce performances that play to our strengths.
Federazione Italiana Rugby head coach Conor O'Shea gives his thoughts on the #GUINNESSPRO14 expansion
Posted by PRO14 Rugby on Tuesday, August 15, 2017
We’re also building the squad depth at national level and the key for that is to do so in Benetton and Zebre so that players can be rotated or rested without creating a drop-off in performance for those franchises. We’re establishing pathways to ensure that the best young players are coming into a system where the clubs and the national team are working together.
It’s about creating a competitive environment where players thrive on being tested at the highest level. The Italian Under 20s team had a competitive Junior World Championship campaign in the summer and Franco Ascione deserves huge credit for that.
Already players like Giovanni Licata have been in action for Zebre while Marco Riccioni prior to his injury has made an impression in Benetton – that’s really encouraging for everyone in Italian rugby because there are a number of hugely talented players beginning to surface.
Naturally, earning respect from other countries and clubs in time will bring with it its own challenges. When your opponents view you more seriously they will work harder to nullify your strengths and that’s just another illustration of what it requires to take on the elite, we have a long road to travel to make it to where everyone in Italian Rugby wants to be.
But our strength is that we have coaches, players, staff (and indeed supporters and sponsors) who are desperate for success. They know it won’t be easy, but they’re tough and they want to fight through adversity and persevere. What’s great about Italy is that if you say: ‘it can’t we done’, we’ll say ‘it will be done’ and I have absolute faith that we will turn the corner sooner rather than later depsite the numerous peaks and troughs of the rollercaoster that lie ahead.
This is a fantastic country to watch and play rugby in and we’re creating a culture that taps into the passion and the core values that matter most to our players, coaches and clubs. We can’t just parachute in a culture because it’s worked in Ireland or England. We are tapping into the Italian psyche and with the right support we’ll see just how powerful that can be on the rugby field.
I ask the question: can we get to Argentina’s level where they’re competing at the tail-end of World Cups and all of us have to believe that it’s possible. Right now, we want to capitalise on the momentum that Benetton and Zebre have produced and take it into our November games where we can provide a glimpse of just how good Italy can be in the future.
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