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Peter Bills: Treviso coach Smith feels Celtic connection key to Italian progress

The scene is set, the stakes are known. Close to 7,000 supporters, many from Ireland, but plenty from all over Italy, will pack into Benetton Treviso's Stadio Comunale di Monigo for this afternoon's intriguing Heineken Cup meeting with Munster.

It might not be an occasion on the scale of Thomond Park matches, but for the game in Italy, it is huge. Treviso coach Franco Smith calls it "the most important game this season for Benetton."

Smith, a South African who used to coach the Free State Cheetahs in Super 14 rugby, does not seek to minimise today's game. It is vital for both sides, albeit for differing reasons.

Yet even he concedes there is a far greater issue, an altogether more important aspect, facing Benetton and Italian rugby. As he wound up his team's preparations for the match, Smith spelt out some harsh realities of rugby in this country. Speaking just three weeks before Italy play Ireland in the opening Six Nations match, what he said went directly to the heart of the whole game over here.

"As for the game itself, we are very realistic. We know this is a top international side full of world-class players. We always keep that in mind when we play this type of game and we have the utmost respect for them.

"Munster have a great commitment to winning and we can learn a lot from them."

Yet other, broader issues confront Smith and others like him in Italian rugby. For, as he says, the game is at a crossroads in this country. Ten years after their entry into the Six Nations championship, major structural changes need to be made, he argues, if rugby in Italy is to take significant steps forward.

"The excitement being generated by this game and by recent games is a comment on how the sport is growing in this country. It has definitely made significant progress.

"That was proven by the 75,000 tickets they sold for the Italy-New Zealand match in Milan in November. That would have been unheard of just a few years ago.

"But now Italy has reached a crossroads and, to go forward, it badly needs the injection of participation in the Celtic League. This sport can grow to be huge in Italy for its values appeal to Italy's sports-people and youngsters. And there are more clubs here, for example, than in a country like Scotland."

The decision as to whether two Italian clubs, Benetton Treviso and Viadana, are accepted into the Celtic League has been delayed. Smith says if it goes against the Italians, it would strike a mortal blow to hopes of developing the sport in this country.

"It can go the other way," warns Smith. "It could slide backwards from where it is at the present time. It is very important for Italy to be competitive against the top teams in world rugby and without participation for some of our best players in a higher-standard league and exposure to better opponents, that ideal may well be damaged.

"If we see players like Brian O'Driscoll, Rob Kearney, Ronan O'Gara, Lee Byrne, Ryan Jones, James Hook and so many other top Celtic players appearing over here regularly, it will stimulate interest in the sport hugely. More players will start playing the game and that means more growth.

"Our international side could become a much more competitive outfit, but they need to have a base of players playing regularly at the top level. The main problem is, at the moment most of Nick Mallett's national side fly in for games and fly out.

"That means they are not playing in Italy and helping create more interest in the game. If two Italian clubs joined the Celtic League it would gradually make a enormous difference to the game all over this country. I know that several sponsors are waiting for the decision."

Smith insists that there are several promising young players emerging, some of whom genuinely excite him.

But his point is that regular exposure to the higher standards of the Celtic League would hasten their development and, most importantly, keep many more of them in Italy.

Will it happen? Should it happen? The case for the latter is unarguable if the IRB wants to see a country like Italy really become stronger. In a world context, that is vital. But as to whether it will, Smith is uncertain.

He says: "Since 2002, there has been talk of some Italian teams going into the Celtic League, but nothing has come of it. So, we in the rugby community all over Italy are waiting with anxiety for this decision."

Irish Independent