'We want to be one of the great clubs in Europe' - Benetton's journey
Italian side has emerged as viable contender for the Pro14 play-offs in Conference B
Benetton’s Federico Ruzza. The club arrvies at the RDS tonight in third place in Conference B, having won 10, drawn one and lost seven so far. Photograph: Elena Barbini/Inpho
In the last two seasons Leinster have played 31 home matches in all competitions and won 30 of them. Benetton’s 17-15 win at the RDS in April last year remains the dual champions’ only blemish in all that time, and it tells us much about the Italian side’s progress since that were they to repeat the feat tonight it would actually be less of a shock.
Along with Connacht’s striking improvement under Andy Friend in Conference A, Benetton’s emergence as a viable contender for the Guinness Pro14 play-offs in Conference B with three rounds remaining has been one of the stories of the season.
They weren’t a million miles away last season, when finishing seven points behind Ulster in fifth place and a shot at qualifying for the Heineken Champions Cup, while they were 13 points adrift of third-placed Edinburgh and the play-offs.
That was serious progress in its own right. Over the previous seven years of the Pro12 in its various guises, Treviso had only once finished higher than 10th. Last season marked the first time they won more matches (11) than they lost (10).
They pitch up in the RDS tonight in third place in Conference B, having won 10, drawn one and lost seven so far. After tonight’s game, they host Munster next Saturday and the likelihood is that they will need to beat one of the Irish sides, and Zebre away in their last game, to finish in the top three and so secure not only a place in the play-offs for the first time, but also qualify for the Heineken Champions Cup on merit for the first time.
According to those in the know, one of the key men in Benetton’s rise is their sports director Antonio Pavanello, who oversees the club’s administration, staffing, recruitment, contracts and commercial operations, almost everything that matters off the field. He is part director of rugby, part general manager.
On Thursday morning he was office bound, reaching agreements with some agents in the morning, before seeing to some of the club’s administration in the afternoon. “I try to give the staff the best way to live rugby inside the club. So, solving problems especially,” he says, with a slight chuckle. He also speaks very clear English.
Pavanello is a former lock and stalwart of Treviso. After coming through the ranks at Rovigo and playing for four seasons in the Italian Championship and European Shield, he then played more than 200 games in a decade with Treviso, including 54 of their 60 games in Europe and 76 games in what was then the Celtic League/Pro12 before retiring in 2015 and assuming his current role. He also played 23 times for Italy.
Pavanello has witnessed some change and wants to see more.
“I think it is a much different club. We want to be one of the great clubs in Europe. We have improved in all areas. For example, when I finished my playing career here we had three coaches, one fitness trainer, two physios – one in the morning and one in the afternoon.”
“Now we have a staff of 25 people, with five coaches, five trainers, five physios, two video analysts. So that’s in terms of staff. In terms of structures, we have a new gym, new pitch, new synthetic pitches. So we’ve really improved as a club, not only in terms of players but especially for all the concerns around the place.”
“So, we try to move on with the philosophy and the idea of what I would like to have had when I was a player. That is the main thing, with a positive way to approach rugby, to try to have solutions and not make problems.”
In the last season before Kieran Crowley was appointed head coach, 2015-16, Benetton finished 12th of 12, with three wins and 19 defeats in their 22 matches. There was a modest improvement in his first season at the helm, finishing 10th with five wins, before the sharp upturn in the last two seasons. Taking into account their Challenge Cup form, when they finished a point behind Harlequins in their pool, Benetton have won 14, drawn one and lost nine.
“For sure Kieran has helped us a lot because he is a fantastic person first of all, and a fantastic coach. For me, he has been able to bring in four great assistants; young with energy and good ideas, and helped by a great staff of trainers and physios, because I remember three years ago we had a lot of injured players. This season we have had only three big injuries.
“Then there are very good players, honestly; not only Italian but also overseas players, who really improved the team. Now we have a roster of 50 players, with positive competition within the squad who help the club to improve, and all the players have improved in their roles.
“For example, we have four good tight-head props that are all possible starters, and so all the props improve in the positive competition,” says Pavanello, in reference to the Italian internationals Alberto de Marchi, Simone Ferrari and Tiziano Pasquali and the 21-year-old Marco Riccioni, who will be.
Their strong sense of Italian identity is re-enforced by their role as bulk suppliers to the Azzurri. Against Ireland in their third-round Six Nations meeting, Benetton supplied nine of the XV and 14 of the 23 in the Stadio Olimpico. But this also highlights the need for greater strength in depth than ever before.
There has been some good recruitment too, notably former Stormers scrumhalf Dewaldt Duvenage and Australian winger Monty Ioane, who has sharpened their cutting edge with a dozen tries in his two seasons with them.
On the premise that both Tommaso Allan and Ian McKinley will be part of the Italian squad at the World Cup, they have also signed Ian Keatley for next season, which looks like shrewd business.
At the Stadio Monigo they have won 10 of 12 matches this season in both competitions, the exceptions being the back-to-back defeats by Leinster and Ulster going into the November Test window.
“That was one of our goals at the beginning of the season: to create a fort inside our stadium, and it has been that way. There remains only Munster, so we hope it will be the same for the last match at home,” he says, laughing. But he also stresses the importance of Benetton being competitive away, and as well as three wins and a draw, there have been four bonus points on their travels.
Pavanello admits they have to broaden their support base beyond Treviso, and to that end the club was renamed Benetton Rugby at the start of last season.
Even so, attendances having been below 2,500 until December, of late there have been crowds of 4,500-plus for the games against Harlequins, Zebre and Edinburgh, and almost 4,000 for Glasgow. The Monigo has a capacity of 6,200 and Pavanello forecasts that “it will be full” for the Munster game.
This season Benetton were consigned to the Challenge Cup after a change to a more merit-based qualification process for the Heineken Cup rather ring-fencing representation from each country.
“We supported that idea because, honestly, to go into a competition not deserved, but only for the rules, is not positive. We prefer to start in a competition like the Challenge Cup, where we can win, and then to earn a spot in the Champions Cup. Now this season we had a good Challenge Cup and if we are in the Champions Cup next season it will be because we have earned it. For me, it’s a good and positive idea.”
It would also mark the high point of the club’s history.
“This project started three years ago so it would be a very, very important achievement for the club,” says Pavanello. “Because we work hard and a lot of people deserve the credit. First of all for the president [Amerino Zatta] and also the Benetton family, because they continued to invest in the club.”
They do have a tough run-in, with Zebre away their final game, and Pavenello agrees they probably need to win two.
“We know that they are three different matches with three different challenges, but we are positive. We know that we have done a really good season. If we arrive at the play-offs it would be much, much better, but we will approach these matches as three finals, and we will have what we deserve. So we will see.”
Their nine-game unbeaten run came to an end last time out away to Connacht, when Pavenello says lessons will have to be learned, not least by him.
“That was a good match until the 60th minute, okay, and after, in the last 20 minutes, there were a lot of cramps and tired players, because of the long travel the previous day. For several reasons we had 16 hours of travel. That is a problem to solve for next season. We have to let our players give 100 per cent on the pitch a day after travelling.”
Pitching up in the RDS should have been less problematic, he presumed. “We fly direct from Venice to Dublin, and I hope we will not be delayed,” he says, chuckling. “I cross the fingers that it will be an easy travel.”
But Benetton have travelled a long road in a short time.