'I'm not sure Conor O'Shea knows how difficult the Italy job really is' - Nick Mallett
Conor O’Shea may have underestimated just how hard the Italy job is after they made a disastrous start to the current Six Nations championship, according to former head coach Nick Mallett.
Having conceded 96 points across two matches and without a single point to their name in the table, Italy look destined again for the Six Nations Wooden Spoon, which would mean a third finish at the bottom of the table in the space of four years.
Irishman O’Shea’s task does not get any easier this weekend with the visit to Twickenham to take on defending Grand Slam champions England, a side who are on a run of 16 matches unbeaten and who have never lost to the Italians.
Mallett, who led Italy from 2007 until the 2011 Rugby World Cup and also guided South Africa during the late 1990s, does not expect Italy to shed themselves of that unwanted record this weekend, and believes that they need to walk before they can run by trying to lose these type of matches by a single score rather than the 33-7 and 63-10 thrashings they have experienced against Wales and Ireland respectively over the last three weeks.
“I think they have a better chance against France or against Scotland,” Mallett tells The Independent. “England have played their two bad games and they really need to get a bonus point against Italy because Ireland have already got one.
“You can really see the quality of players that they’ve got and I just think that playing at Twickenham and having come off probably two average performances, I think is fair to say, England are really going to want to go out and make a point. It’s going to be really tough for Italy.”
The problem lies much deeper though than England coming off two dogged performances. Italy finished bottom of the Six Nations championship in all four years that Mallett took charge, and have done so a further two times under his successor Jacques Brunel. What has been more concerning for the nation though is the decline over the past two years compared to the rise of Georgia, who not only outshined them at the Rugby World Cup in 2015 but have also moved ahead of Italy in the world rankings.
It’s led to calls for a Six Nations play-off match, with the basement side playing the winner of the Rugby Europe Championship for the right to be in next year’s Six Nations. Mallett though believes that Italy need to get their house in order first when it comes to domestic rugby in order to reap the rewards on the international level, and says that O’Shea is discovering the same difficulties that both he and Brunel faced when they arrived in the job.
“The national side is a reflection of the talent that they can bring through the professional teams below them, and there’s only two professional teams that Italian rugby can talk about in having a professional structure at club level,” Mallett explains, “but having been there and watching the rugby played by a Rovigo vs a Parma or a Calvisano against a Viadana, the standard of that rugby is not at the level required for the Six Nations.
“So you’re looking really to Zebre and Treviso, who play in professional rugby, but unfortunately those two teams have lost a number of their best players to overseas clubs.
“The guys who are left there are pretty young and they’re struggling in the Pro12. The real problem is the question of ‘is rugby taken that seriously by the Italian people?’ They love their rugby team, but rugby is only played in very small areas of Italy. The big cities are the ones who play football, and small ones like I mentioned in Rodrigo, Calvisano, Viadana, they’re small towns that attract a very vocal base but still small, maybe 3,000 to 4,000 people. It is tough ask for Conor O’Shea at the moment.
“Every coach is left with the same problem that the best players are based outside of Italy and the ones in Italy are obviously talented youngsters but how do you get them to play enough professional rugby to make them ready for international rugby at that level? Then, how do you mix those guys, because you don’t control the team as the Celtic teams have control over the sides. The Scottish team, Ireland and Wales have a two-week build-up to the Six Nations as does England, and unfortunately in Italy you can’t get the guys. Sergio Parisse will play a game on the Saturday or the Sunday and we’d get him on the Monday to assess him for a game on the following Saturday. It’s just very difficult, and for Conor, I’m still not entirely sure if he knows just how difficult that job really is.”
Mallett is continuing his role this year as an analyst for Accenture, who collate stats for the Six Nations and help reveal where teams are going right – or in Italy’s case – going wrong. It doesn’t take him long to pinpoint the problem with his former side.
“It’s extraordinary to watch how Italy are competitive usually for 40 minutes,” he said. “For 40 minutes they hang in there, not so much for the game against Ireland because Ireland really came out of the blocks quickly and were 28 points up at half-time, but normally Italy can compete for 40, 50, 60 minutes. It’s in the last 20 minutes when the replacements come on that you see errors being made.
“The increase in Italian errors in the last 20 minutes of a game is phenomenal, and the guys will try and run the ball from deep, there will be the odd knock-on, a wayward pass, turnovers in midfield, a little bit slow getting g up off the ground so there tackles aren’t efficient and suddenly they are conceding four tries in the last 20 minutes, so the score blows out really quickly and it’s a very difficult result.
“I think the game that they have to play against England is that they have to be aware that they need to play for 80 minutes because you can’t even start talking about winning a game until you’ve started losing games by 10 points or less. If you start losing by 10 points or less you can claim ‘well there was an opportunity there’ but if you’re losing by 40-60 points then it’s farcical to talk about winning a game. That’s a big step that this team, this Italian team under Conor, must take to get a game against England where if they lose 20-15, then that will be a tremendous result and then they know if they can keep a scoreline tight against France and also Scotland then you never know.”
The problem is that when it comes to England, Italy simply don’t win, and despite many of the current English crop holding memories of the 18-12 near-miss in 2013, they simply don’t look like a team ready to lose to someone for the first time in history.