Lack of cutting edge blunts Mallett's hopes for progress
The Azzurri will play to their strengths but Italian ambitions are low, writes Peter Bills
I talian rugby's Super 10 competition is hardly the equivalent of soccer's Scudetto and Inter Milan need not worry about being squeezed out of the front pages of La Gazzetta dello Sport, the country's leading sports newspaper.
Nevertheless, Italian national rugby coach Nick Mallett was in such chipper mood last week ahead of the start of the Six Nations that he made some startling claims on behalf of the 15-man game in the country of Cannavaro, Rossi and Maldini.
Mallett is the big South African charged with masterminding Italy's rugby emergence. Thirteen successive losses in 2009 before a scrambled win over Samoa scarcely suggests teams will be quaking in their boots at the prospect of a confrontation with Mallett's men.
Mallett, though, is not easily deterred. "There is a feeling in Italy that the values of rugby represent areas of life Italian people would like to adhere to," he said. "They see it as a gentlemanly sport." Not a variation on the theme of that old chestnut about rugby being a game for hooligans played by gentlemen and soccer, a game for gentlemen played by hooligans? Well, sort of.
"You can bring the family to rugby and that is becoming increasingly popular in Italy. These are the issues, for in soccer it is not the same situation. The values rugby is proposing are liked and respected."
It is true that the most extraordinary statistic from this entire season will be the 80,000 Italy attracted to the San Siro stadium, the citadel of the north shared by Internazionale and AC Milan, for their November Test match against New Zealand. It was a unique experience and a fantastic atmosphere of pure passion and pride.
Even Mallett shakes his head in amazement at the memory. "In any other sport in Italy, if you lose four games you are thrown out as coach. We had lost 12 so you have to wonder at how this sport managed to get 80,000 people to come and watch. The (Italian) public is far more intelligent than the press gives them credit for. They are very proud of the way their team is performing. They know other countries have far more resources than them but when they see their team play with such passion it gives them great pride. That is incredibly positive and I am very proud that the Italian public responded that way."
Mallett's assertion that rugby, unlike the notoriously demanding soccer, is quite different in meekly accepting defeats ought to be quantified. Italian rugby president Carlo Dondi has not been slow in the past to part company with national coaches whom he considered had not made the progress he required. New Zealanders Brad Johnstone and John Kirwan are just two of Italy's former coaches who have moved on.
Mallett proudly proclaims, "I am the only (national) coach who is not judged purely on results but more on the way the team performs."
But if that is true, the Azzurri had better sharpen up their act, starting against Ireland at Croke Park next Saturday, from the limp manner in which they ended the 2009 tournament, with a 50-8 thrashing by the French. Nor will we forget Mallett's extraordinary selection of flanker Mauro Bergamasco at scrumhalf for the game against England at Twickenham last year.
"Last year was a disaster, I made a very poor selection . . . for Twickenham," admits Mallett. "It was forced on me by circumstances but it was a very poor start to the Championship. We had problems at scrumhalf and flyhalf and it became obvious the team wasn't able to play at the pace other teams were playing at. We conceded five or six tries in some games and only scored two tries in the whole tournament; that was very disappointing."
Mallett now believes he has discovered a couple of half-backs who can cut the mustard at this level. But he continues to search for a class goal kicker, someone in the style of Diego Dominguez who booted them to that sensational victory over Scotland in Rome in 2000, their first year in the expanded Six Nations.
But they will be strong in the scrum, where the front row is one of the best in Europe. Tighthead Martin Castrogiovanni gave the All Blacks murderous problems in that Milan match in November and the Irish front row (not to mention the referee) will need to be at its wiliest best to survive.
"We have our strengths and we're very good in the set-pieces, particularly the scrum," says Mallett. "That is an area we are quite proud of but we're also trying to improve our defence all the time. Teams now respect our forwards. They will know they have to perform in the area of the tight five."
True. But the poverty of Italy's attacking game behind the pack remains obvious. This is where Ireland should be overwhelmingly superior, especially as Italy will play this Championship without their one world-class player, No 8 and captain Sergio Parisse, due to injury.
For Italy, the Championship looks clear. Beating Scotland in Rome is their only realistic ambition. Will Dondi keep his nerve and keep smiling through the defeats?