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Gerry Thornley: Italian rugby needs help as opposed to being cut adrift

The Azzurri now paying the price for the lack of an academy structure throughout the Noughties

It didn't take long for that hoary old chestnut regarding Italy's ongoing participation in the Six Nations to rear its head. Two more defeats to be precise. Following along in this slipstream was the suggestion that their place might be taken by South Africa.

The latter is simply a non-runner, thankfully, as adding the Springboks to the Six Nations would be wrong on so many levels. Their Rugby Championship rivalry with the All Blacks especially, but also Australia and Argentina, is an integral part of the Test arena.

Incorporating a team from the southern hemisphere would end the concept of the Six Nations being a European competition. One of the Six Nations’ greatest attractions is the mix of home and away supporters between countries within a two-hour flight of each other. Biennial pilgrimages to Rome have become a hugely popular aspect of the Six Nations.

Replacing Italy with South Africa would make the top tier of the international game even more of a closed shop and condemn Italian rugby to Tier 2 status, effectively shredding over two decades of investment in the game there.

For sure, it’s a shame the Azzurri haven’t developed and been more competitive in latter years. A demoralising sequence of 34 defeats in the Six Nations dating back to 2015 has them at their lowest ebb since being added to the championship in 2000.

Long gone are the heady days in 2013 when they bookended the Six Nations with wins over France and Ireland in Rome, prompting thousands to celebrate in front of a giant screen in a fan zone in the capital. They have won only one match since then, the 22-19 win over Scotland in round three in 2015.

Allowing for their current injury jinx which has sidelined so many experienced players, the lack of home-produced players has led to a dearth of experience

Interest in the media and the public has waned and it’s not just because they’ve lost 34 championship games in a row, it’s been the scale of those defeats. It hasn’t helped that, by comparison, other Italian sports have been booming.

Their men’s football team won Euro 2020 last year, their men’s and women’s teams in volleyball were both crowned world champions, and they won Olympic gold medals in the 100 meres, high jump and 100 metre relay.

In many ways, Italian rugby is now paying for the sins, or neglect, of the Noughties. Unlike Ireland, rugby is not played in Italian schools and yet no academy structure was put in place between 2000 and 2010. Instead, there was an overt reliance on project players from the southern hemisphere and elsewhere.

Allowing for their current injury jinx which has sidelined so many experienced players, the lack of home-produced players has led to a dearth of experience. Hence, although Italy has been producing its best crop of talented young players in the last three or four years, the age profile of the current Azzurri team is inexperienced, and is only being exposed to defeats. They even struggled to beat Uruguay last November.

Two regions

Things are not much better for their two regions. Kieran Crowley signed off with Treviso by winning the Rainbow Cup, but prior to that they didn't win any of their 15 games in the Pro14 last season, drawing one and losing the rest.

Conor O’Shea having moved on and Michael Bradley having recently been released by Zebre, the Irish influence has waned, but Stephen Aboud’s work since becoming the head of technical direction for players and coach development in 2016, with responsibility for producing elite young players, has reaped a conspicuous dividend.

The Italian U-18s and U-20s have been markedly more competitive in the last four years. The former have beaten Ireland and England, and the U-20s have beaten Wales twice and Scotland twice, beat Ireland in a friendly at UCD by 15-8 last December and beat England for the first time ever a fortnight ago.

As well as much improved U-20 Six Nations results, Italy finished in the top ten at the last three World Rugby U-20s Championships prior to last year’s cancellation, something they had never previously managed. In the last 30 matches played by their U-18s and U-20s, they’ve won ten. Not earth shattering, but a significant upturn.

So there are some green shoots there, although the new Italian Federation president Marzio Innocenti, the Azzurri captain at the first World Cup who won a landslide election against his unpopular predecessor Alfredo Gavazzi last year, has decided to replace the age-grade structures put in place by Aboud.

Aboud’s contact is up at the end of this season and it will be interesting to see if he remains with the FIR. From this remove, their academy structures were the one aspect of Italian rugby that didn’t require tinkering with.

Removing them from the competition will undo almost 25 years of investment and do them even more irreparable damage

Stephen Varney and Paolo Garbisi were the half-backs in the 2019 U-20s and are now, at the age of 20 and 21 respectively, already the established combination for the senior team. Ironically, outhalf had been a problem position for the Azzurri ever since the retirement of Diego Dominquez, and Garbisi is the finest indigenous outhalf Italian rugby has produced since the Argentinian-born playmaker.

It’s a pity in some respects that he moved from Treviso to Montpellier but it will assuredly benefit Garbisi’s game. He’s also established himself as their first-choice outhalf ahead of World Cup winner Handre Pollard and at the weekend helped Montpellier to extend their unbeaten run and hold onto second place in the Top 14 with a 16-16 draw at Brive.

Not healthy

For sure, having one team in a six-team tournament which provides a near certain bonus-point win for their opponents is not healthy. Sunday afternoon slots aren’t helping, but right now the Italians are not doing either themselves or the Six Nations much good. But removing them from the competition will undo almost 25 years of investment and do them even more irreparable damage.

Besides, what’s the alternative? It can’t be South Africa, while Georgia or any of the other Tier 2 countries would most likely be even less competitive. If anything, Italian rugby needs more assistance from the Six Nations and World Rugby.

Italian rugby has nothing like the heritage or tradition in the sport of the other countries, but even France – having initially joined the Five Nations in 1910 before being evicted for paying players – didn’t win their first title until 1959, which was their 30th year in the competition.

Italy need help, as opposed to being cut adrift.

gthornley@irishtimes.com