Italy unlikely to cope with a focused Irish side
But it’s not enough anymore just to be disciplined and wait for the Italians to hand you the game
Italy’s Giovambattista Venditti scores his side’s try during the 22-15 victory over Ireland in Rome last year. Photo: James Crombie/Inpho
I always tell people I owe my rugby career to the Italians. As a young man, I got in a fight in Bruno’s chipper in Tipperary town and it blossomed from there.
Joking aside, my first Six Nations game was against Italy in Rome. It was 2001 and it was my first start for Ireland. I had played well in the Heineken Cup quarter-final against Biarritz a fortnight before and I got into the squad with Anthony Foley, Andy Ward and David Wallace. I knew there was a good chance of me getting a game but to get a start was very special.
I’d never been to Rome before. We stayed in a hotel overlooking the whole city and went to see the Coliseum one of the days. Another day, we had an audience with the Pope, which was completely surreal. On the way in, we were slagging David Humphreys and Tyrone Howe saying they were going to get struck by bolts of lightning as soon as they walked through the door.
The thing with playing Italy in those days was that you didn’t want to be on the team that got beaten by them. They were only new to the Six Nations scene and a few of our guys had bad memories of losing to them in the ’90s. Keith Wood and Anthony Foley got beaten home and away and they had us well-warned not to let it happen again. It might have felt like a bit of a holiday during the week but we were there on serious business come the weekend.
You were preparing for a game where you knew that on paper you were the better team. They were good athletes, physically strong but technically not the best rugby players in the world. They were still adapting to the game at that level, still learning what made it different to the club game.
We all knew that playing them meant being disciplined and patient and not getting drawn into a war early on. The plan was to try to wear them down and wait for gaps to appear. We knew they would be physical, we knew they were very likely to go over the top at some stage.
They were always aggressive and could be liable to lose the plot a bit. Temperament was an issue. Some of it came from the fact that they were fiercely proud of where they were from and saw rugby as a way to express that. They would fly in off their feet and give away a load of penalties. Part of our game plan would be just to allow them do it so you could kill them by kicking your goals.
They obviously felt they had to impose themselves physically and they sometimes approached rugby as a game where you had to get into a fight. They were a bit like me in the chipper in Tipp town. Get stuck in, ask questions later.
I remember their scrumhalf Alessandro Troncon lost it that day and landed a haymaker on Peter Stringer. Poor Stringer got involved with him at a ruck and Troncon nailed him right on the chin and laid him out.
The mad thing was, none of us noticed and it was only the crowd’s noise that told us that something had happened. They were a few yards behind the ruck so we were all looking for the ball and paying them no attention. Usually if someone clocks one of your team-mates, everybody races each other to get in there and sort him out.
But all we could see when we got up from the ruck was Stringer lying on the ground and Troncon looking over at the ref hoping he hadn’t seen anything. Most of us didn’t know whether to laugh or to hit Troncon on the basis that he must have done something. The ref got in there though and sent him off. Italy had to play the last five minutes of the first half and the whole of the second half with 14 men.
You could always find a little kink in the Italians. You always knew if you put pressure on them, if you squeezed them and kept your discipline, you could eventually force them into losing their temper.
Referees wouldn’t stand for it and they would always give away too many penalties or find a man sent to the bin. So many times you would come off the pitch and their players wouldn’t talk to you because they would be fuming at what they saw as injustice from the referee – despite it being completely their own fault.
They evolved as the years went by. First John Kirwan and then Nick Mallet came in and the players’ skill sets improved. They played more to a structured game plan than they had before, even to the point where they sometimes overcomplicated things. But it was still progress.
Bit by bit, their players got better and played more intelligently. Ireland managed to beat them every year but they were hard-fought games. They started taking scalps – usually Scotland but Wales as well, right up to last year where they beat both Ireland and France. Yes there were weaknesses in their opposition but Italy deserved both those wins, whatever state Ireland and France were in.
The Six Nations needs a strong Italy. It can’t just be a case of them and Scotland battling it out for the wooden spoon each year. I know that wasn’t the case last year but it looks that way this time, which made their defeat to Scotland a couple of weeks ago all the harder for them to take. They could and should have won that game. It isn’t good enough for them to come close any more.
For teams preparing to play against them, they’re a different prospect now. It isn’t enough anymore to just keep it tight and disciplined and wait for them to hand you opportunities. You have to be more wary of what they have to offer. You look at someone like Michele Campanero and he poses a totally different threat to what previous Italian sides could offer.
They’ve been through a transition period. Some of their great old warriors have moved on, or are close enough to the end. But they face the same problem as they always have – the sport is down the pecking order in terms of popularity in their country and their playing pool isn’t deep enough.
The news from a few weeks ago that Treviso are considering leaving the Rabo at the end of the season doesn’t bode well either. Even without a very deep playing pool, Treviso should have enough about them to be mid-table in the Rabo. But for all the progress they’ve made – and it’s still a tough place to go, as Munster found out this season – pulling out would be a backward step. For them and for Italian rugby as a whole.
The thing I always admired about the Italians was that no matter how bad a beating they took one year, they would never shrink from the following year’s game. They still turned up full of energy and full of passion. When you’re getting beaten year after year, that’s not an easy thing to do.
In a way, that’s why I’m a bit disappointed in them so far in this campaign. After beating Ireland and France last year, you’d expect them to kick on. Instead they’ve played three and lost three and I fully expect Ireland to make that four on Saturday. There should be a reaction from the England game and the little bits and pieces of execution that were lacking then should be rectified by the weekend. There’ll be a spring in the Irish step and they’ll do a professional job.
If we had won in Twickenham there may have been a danger of complacency. But the defeat will ensure they come into this one totally focused on the job at hand.
The fact that the whole build-up has been about Brian O’Driscoll’s last game in an Irish shirt at Lansdowne Road will help Ireland. While the press and the public have all been concentrating on Drico’s last hurrah, the team have nothing to distract them. There’s no way he’d let it impact on their preparation anyway.
Ireland need a win and produce a good performance to build a bit of a buzz for heading to Paris the following week. They shouldn’t worry too much about putting up a big score – the points difference is healthy as it is and a winning margin of anywhere in the region of 10 points will put them in a great position going to France.
Italy are still a team that have a real problem putting together long phases of possession. They struggle with continuity at times and because of this they often lack a way of unlocking a defensive system. They have some fine individual talent but there’s still plenty of their game that involves trying to run over people.
For all the progress since they came into the Six Nations, they won’t make real strides up the table until they can improve on that.