McLean hoping for a major improvement as Italy head for last-chance saloon

Italy’s naturalised Aussie believes Sergio Parisse’s return can galvanise team

Italy fullback Luke McLean: “We realise that we will have to be virtually perfect if we’re to have any chance to come away with a win.” Photo: Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty

Italy fullback Luke McLean: “We realise that we will have to be virtually perfect if we’re to have any chance to come away with a win.” Photo: Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty

 

Luke McLean, Italy’s long-since naturalised Aussie who has played for his adopted country 72 times, is one of only four players in their squad born between 1985 and 1989. In other words, while this is probably a last World Cup for the vintage veterans, there is something of a leadership vacuum in their wake.

Much of the squad is too old, much of it too young. This is the inevitable by-product of Italian rugby’s lack of succession planning, and two regional professional feeder teams who are pretty much independent entities – especially Treviso.

Two years ago, Treviso had a good team on the up – albeit dependent upon foreign signings – before starting off again after releasing many of their Azzurri frontliners to play abroad. Zebre are pretty much a new team as well, hence the two were marooned at the bottom of the Pro12 last season.

The Italian Federation has invested in their underage structure, by creating 32 provincial academies, which in turn feeds nine provincial academies and they feed the national academy at Parma. But the fruits of this system will take time.

Italian rugby is especially handicapped by sport being virtually non-existent in schools.

In any event, the short- to medium-term future after this tournament does not look too promising. It will be most probably be a last hurrah for Sergio Parisse, Martin Castrogiovanni, Leonardo Ghiraldini, Mauro Bergamasco and Alessandro Massi, and would have been for the injured Andrea Masi.

The Azzurri are even more cocooned in Surrey than are Ireland, in the aptly-named, old world splendour of the red-bricked Woodlands Park Hotel in Cobham, with Chelsea’s training ground nearby, and situated mid-way between Epsom and Sandown. It was bathed in warm sunshine yesterday, but they want to send their veterans off to the rugby-playing sunsets on a high.

The guard

“After every World Cup there’s a changing of the guard for every team,” McLean told The Irish Times yesterday. “So yeah, there’s always more importance for those players and for us. Bergamasco has played five World Cups. If it is the last for Sergio or ‘Castro’, you obviously want to send them out on a high, and set history, which would be getting to a quarter-final. Italy have never managed to do that. It just adds that extra lit bit of desire to send them off on a high after everything they’ve done for Italian rugby.”

 

For sure, the return of Parisse for his 114th Test is timely for Italy. His influence for them is even greater than Paul O’Connell’s for Ireland, in part because of the comparative dearth of top-class Test players in Italy’s ranks.

Without him they have looked decidedly uninspired and insipid; rather they appear to be going through the motions in what are the final throes of Jacques Brunel’s four-year reign.

Having missed the opening two warm-up games, such was Parisse’s galvanic effect on his team-mates when he returned to duty for that Welsh game that they only went down 23-19, a week after losing 48-7 to Scotland.

“On that day against Scotland everything we did went wrong; intercepts, skipped tackles, everything. It was just an absolute nightmare,” says McLean. “And then in a week we really managed to turn it around. The attitude at training was really positive. Everyone knuckled down and obviously Sergio, deservedly resting for a couple of weeks after the Top 14 finished so late for him, came back but then unfortunately was injured.

“We’ve missed him for the last two weeks. He’s managed to work himself back miraculously and turned up yesterday. If he’s out on the pitch on Sunday, it will be a massive, massive boost for us; playing-wise, leadership-wise, a bit of everything really. You want a player like that out on the pitch with you.”

McLean, who describes Italy’s win over Ireland two seasons ago as “like a lifetime ago”, so much has happened since, also admits the mood was down in the aftermath of both the defeat to France and the laboured win over Canada.

Kicked on

“There was a little bit of relief but also frustration with how we played. At certain times we looked really good, and looked like we could have kicked on and scored some points. But at other times we were really scrambling in ‘D’ with a couple of missed tackles . . .

“So while there was relief, there was no delusion there that we didn’t play up to the standard we need. If we want to beat teams like Ireland, we’ll have to play a hell of a lot better. If Canada had won, it wouldn’t have been in injustice. We know we were lucky to get away with that.”

McLean has readily noted how comparatively clinical Ireland have been, “sticking to their game plan, retaining their patience, knowing in the last 30 minutes it will pay off. Ireland have been one of the form teams so far, so we’ll definitely have to step it up a notch if we’re going to try and stick with them.”

The Italians will also be fighting for their World Cup lives. “It’s do or die, isn’t it? Once you lose one pool match in the World Cup, you can’t lose two, can you? Come Sunday everybody knows what’s riding on this game. Ireland will have the same mindset. We realise that we will have to be virtually perfect if we’re to have any chance to come away with a win.”

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