Friday 24 March 2017

Azzurri wait for a wonder

Italy's arrival here this week reminds me of a conversation I had 10 years ago with their coach, Brad Johnstone, the former All Black prop forward. As debutants in a newly-created Six Nations, they had just had the effrontery to beat Scotland in Rome while Ireland were being demolished 50-18 by England at Twickenham.

What were Ireland to do? Perhaps the Kiwi miracle-worker, who had earlier transformed Fiji's fortunes, could offer some advice.

"If players are properly motivated, they can bridge a difference in class, certainly on the day," he said. "With Fiji, I had to pick a style of play where I could use their flair and slot in some of the All Black patterns where they could win and retain ball. Any team can get up on an occasion and knock over a big boy, but it would be difficult to maintain it over a season."

As it happened, there were to be no more one-day wonders for Johnstone as Italy's coach. They parted company at the end of the 2002 season with him bitterly labelling the Italian national set-up "a shambles".

Still, his successor, compatriot John Kirwan, proved Johnstone's thinking on isolated performances was fundamentally sound. Under Kirwan, Italy beat Wales by 30-22 in 2003 and had another win over the Scots a year later.

Then, after Kirwan too had gone, they gained their first away point in an 18-18 draw with the Welsh in 2006. And they have had two further victories over the Scots and a second one against Wales, making a total of six wins from 50 championship matches.

In summing up the Twickenham debacle of 2000, Johnstone said: "The Irish have been in this position before and fought back. And I believe they'll do it again." Which, of course, we've done. But what of the Italians? Are they due another one-day wonder?

ssport@independent.ie

Sunday Independent

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