McLean feels Italy are ready to step it up against Ireland
Head coach Brunel central to Italian renaissance
Three weeks ago, the day after Italy had lost at home to Wales, Luke McLean went to the Treviso-Munster game with his girlfriend, Stefanie, who took their seven-year-old dog, Arya, a Lagotto Romagnolo – an Italian breed which hunts truffle – for a walk. Dogs being dogs at a rugby match, sure enough Arya broke free for a solo pitch invasion.
A mortified Stefanie implored McLean to retrieve Arya, and so, even more mortified, McLean went chasing after her. “The next thing was I was the one looking like a fool going onto the pitch,” recalls McLean, still embarrassed by the moment. “They had just taken a penalty and that was the only positive; there wasn’t a breakdown for her to jump into. It was a bit of an embarrassing moment; I’m not going to lie. I’d just come back from Six Nations and then that happened to me. I went straight home after that. Not my proudest moment.”
McLean has been grabbing more attention this season and more legitimately too. Last week’s try against England was only his fifth in 45 Tests, and one of the others was that wonderful move he finished off in the corner in Ireland’s 13-11 win in Rome two years ago. Given a licence to thrill, he has done that, though he’s quick to point this applies across the team.
“I think we’re just seeing a different Italy in general; playing with a lot more confidence and really looking to play good rugby and take the opportunities that are presented to us. I think from the props to the fullback, everyone has really taken that on board.”
Brunel has been central to this renaissance, but according to McLean there are a combination of factors, not least the advent of Italian sides to the Rabo PRO12. “You’ve got to train at a different level because it’s no longer a case of thinking ‘we’re going to go out on Saturday and we’re probably going to win anyway’. At every training session you have to give everything, you’re always looking to do extras, whether it’s in the gym or in a field and just playing week in, week out at that higher level, sooner or later your fitness levels get up there. You become used to that defence coming at you at a certain pace so you know how deep to play, how flat to play and what not, whereas back in the day of coming from (Italian) Super 10 to international rugby it was all a bit of a shock.”
Declan Kidney always said it would take two or three years for this to bear fruition. “You were never going to see the results in the first year,” agrees McLean. “It was always going to be a work in progress and I think it still is a work in progress.
“You’re still pulling those young kids through, giving them opportunities and sooner or later, after two or three years playing at that level, the next thing you know you’re pulling through a superstar. There’s definitely going to be Italian players who come through like that.”
In the midst of all this, though, McLean and Co have clearly been given licence to counter from kicks or turnovers where before they would have kicked. Both tries against France emanated from McLean counters, and having scored himself last week off Luciano Orquera’s cross kick, McLean made one of the game’s clean-line breaks from deep off turnover ball.
“Just playing what’s in front of us,” he says. “If you see something and that’s your natural instinct to go for it, then that’s how rugby is meant to be played. As personally as players I’m sure that’s the best way for us to play it. It’s getting back to the grass roots of it and enjoying yourself on a rugby field,” he says, though also stresses Italy’s greater focus on retaining possession through multiple phases.
McLean has enjoyed this, his sixth season in Italian rugby, more than ever, which applies to this fourth season with Treviso. His maternal grandparents hail from near Brescia and Pisa, and so had an Italian passport from an early age. Born in Townsville, Queensland, he represented Australia at Under-19 level played with ‘Souths’ in Brisbane 2006 and in the short-lived Australian championship with Perth Spirit in 2007 when Calvisano contacted him.
“It was one of those things that at the time maybe you don’t think too much about.
“It’d be fun to go over to Europe and spend 18 months there and then I can always comes back and finish studying. But I’m very happy with how things have panned out. No regrets at all. I feel Italian more and more every day.”
McLean won an Italian championship finals in 2008 before doing so with Treviso in 2010, and having made his Test debut came against South Africa in Cape Town in June 2008, McLean has now played in all bar one of Italy’s last 24 games, starting the last eight.
But he admits it was difficult at first. “In the first couple of weeks I really struggled to adapt to it. I had an Italian woman who mothered me; I’d be the first to admit that,” he says self-deprecatingly and smiling.
“I didn’t know how to cook, I didn’t know how to clean, I didn’t know how to do lots of things around the house. I guess that was the biggest shock, just not having that support system around that you’re so used to with your family and your friends.”
It’s perhaps a measure of their heightened self-belief that, he says, Italy just have to worry about their own game. “When we start worrying about the opposition and what they can do and all this stuff, we start losing the plot a little.”
This is Ireland’s first visit to Rome’s Olympic Stadium, which McLean describes as exceptional. “You’re in front of 70,000 people that are mostly cheering for you, so it’s definitely a lift. I think all the boys really enjoy going out there,” he says.
We enjoyed the old field (Stadio Flaminio). It was nice. It had a different atmosphere but having 75,000 people cheering for you definitely helps.
“Yea, we’re happy with the stadium.”