Gerry Thornley: This new Italy team won't be built in a day

Bradley and Aboud also playing key roles in the restoration of Azzurri rugby

Italy have unearthed a gem in fulllback Matteo Minozzi. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

Italy have unearthed a gem in fulllback Matteo Minozzi. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

 

Rome wasn’t built in a day has rarely seemed more apt in a rugby context, as Conor O’Shea strives to orchestrate an Irish-infused revolution in Italian rugby.

Like all revolutions, these things take time and, once again, there was not too much evidence of it gathering pace at Lansdowne Road last Saturday.

Defensively muddled and unable to prevent Ireland’s utter control of the game, by half-time Italy had coughed up an attacking bonus point for their sixth Six Nations game in succession, during which they’ve conceded 38 tries.

They have now lost 14 Six Nations games in a row, equalling their worst run in the championship from 2000 to 2002. Italy have won four of 18 Test matches since O’Shea’s arrival, and just one of their last 13, at home to Fiji, to stand 14th in the world rankings.

Once again, their value to the tournament is being questioned.

Their forwards have lost much of the punch of yore, with their scrum and maul no longer weapons
 

However, lest we forget, Irish rugby wasn’t so hot itself once upon a time. Witness the not so plentiful 1990s: between 1988 and 1999 Ireland never finished above the bottom two. In 48 matches over those 12 years, Ireland achieved only 10 wins, with two draws and 36 defeats. There were five wooden spoons in those dozen campaigns, with three in a row from 1996, culminating in a whitewash in 1998. Record hammerings abounded, and it is only six years since that 60-0 horror show in Hamilton against the All Blacks.

O’Shea admitted afterwards that he always feared last Saturday’s game would be the toughest they’d face in a long time. They were away to the third ranked side in the world just six days after hosting the number two ranked side.

The Azzurri went into this tournament with their own less publicised injury toll, and have sorely missed the Glasgow Warriors wing Leonardo Sarto (dislocated shoulder), centre Michele Campagnaro and the Pro14’s second highest try scorer Angelo Esposito. They will now have a welcome two-week break before playing France in Marseilles on Friday week, then Wales away prior to hosting Scotland.

Their forwards have lost much of the punch of yore, with their scrum and maul no longer weapons, and Sebastien Negri has been the only forward to provide go-forward ball. Defensively too, their callowness has been badly exposed and Brendan Venter has also been sorely missed. 

At half-time last Saturday, O’Shea set his players a goal of scoring four tries and a first attacking bonus point of their own. But for Keith Earls chasing down Mattia Bellini, they would have done so, and this was after a marginal forward pass denied them a third try against England.

They have unearthed a gem in the 21-year-old fullback Matteo Minozzi, and Tommaso Allan is playing the best rugby of his career under Mike Catt’s influence.

Talking to seasoned Italian rugby writers, they say O’Shea is endeavouring to establish better grassroots structures for the longer haul than any of his predecessors managed. They hail the “great work” of the “Italian/Irish”, in reference to O’Shea, Stephen Aboud, who has a six-year contract, and Michael Bradley. Aboud, who created the Irish academy and then the four provincial academies, has reduced the Italian academies from nine to a more streamlined four.

Under Aboud’s influence, Italy have also made striking improvements at under-20 level. They had a good team last year, which beat Ireland at the Junior World Cup, and even better ones to come.

Flanker Jacopo Bianchi (bottom left), who was been sent off after just nine minutes of the Under-20 Six Nations match against Ireland at Donybrook, is considered a senior star of the future. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho
Flanker Jacopo Bianchi (bottom left), who was been sent off after just nine minutes of the Under-20 Six Nations match against Ireland at Donybrook, is considered a senior star of the future. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho

After pushing the English under-20s to a 27-17 win a week before, they recovered from the sending off of flanker Jacopo Bianchi in the ninth minute at Donnybrook on Friday night, and a 38-15 deficit shortly after half-time, to lose 38-34. They scored five tries and picked up two bonus points, with a brand of attacking rugby not seen before from an Italian under-20 side.

Outhalf Antonio Rizzi in particular looked one for the future, as does their replacement lock, 19-year-old Edoardo Iachizzi (an Italian who is in the Perpignan espoirs) and flanker and captain Michele Lamarro. They also think highly of Bianchi.

Bradley has provided Zebre with a style of play that has helped to make them more competitive than seemed possible given they were only saved from extinction by the Italian federation seven months ago and the slimness of their squad, mostly plucked from their domestic club championship.

Benetton’s eye-catching win over the Scarlets on Sunday was the 10th registered by the two Italian sides in the Pro14 this season, already two more than their combined tally from the whole of last season.

Last Saturday, Italy had only two starters from the XV against Ireland a year ago, Parisse and Tommaso Benvenuti. Alas, their new young players are coming into a losing team, and in the next two years they are liable to see the retirements of hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini, lock Alessandro Zanni and Sergio Parisse, who between them accounted for 310 of the 588 caps in Saturday’s match-day squad.

Conceivably, the Azzurri might only become more competitive after the next World Cup, when their rivals will come to the end of a cycle as their young team matures. 

Yet in the past, whereas Italy had better international sides, they had no real plan for the future. O’Shea has spoken of his desire to give Parisse a few more days in the sun over the next two years and, one day years from now, of having a beer with him in Rome celebrating a famous Italian win.

Nicknamed Caesar in his earlier playing days, it could be that the fruits of O’Shea’s labour will be realised after he has moved on.

  gthornley@irishtimes.com

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