Sunday 25 February 2018

Transforming their rugby landscape from the ground up

Italy are sowing the seeds for a change in their rugby culture, says Brendan Fanning

Italy's coach Jacques Brunel
Italy's coach Jacques Brunel
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

The way the planets are currently aligned it would be a shock to the solar system if Italy didn't leave Lansdowne Road on Saturday with a fat addition to their 'points conceded' column in this year's Six Nations.

Pre-tournament their plan had been to beat Scotland, which would have been their sixth time to perform that trick, and then give England a good rattle with the sun beating down in the Stadio Olimpico on the last day.

Having that script shredded with virtually the last play of the game last weekend means they are heading for a sixth blank sheet in 15 years. And yet they still have reason to hope that the next 15 will be a whole lot better.

Below the line in Italy there has been a restructuring of the game that finally will give them a chance to compete. Their entry to the Championship in 2000 was marked on its first day with a win over the Scots in the old Stadio Flaminio, but not only did it come a bit late for a fine Italy side – one that had beaten our lot three times running from 1995-1997 – their infrastructure couldn't hope to sustain that form.

Two-and-a-half seasons ago their inclusion in Celtic Rugby filled out, for their two teams below Test level, a season with Pro12 and Heineken Cup rugby. What is happening now however, at last, promises to provide some quality indigenous throughput to those teams. National manager Carlo Checcinato, who won 83 caps in the Italy pack from 1990-2004, is at the heart of the change. "We started this year 32 Centres of Formation around the country," he says. "They are for under 16 players – so this year that's players born in 1998 and 1999 – and they train together five times a week which is split between three times with their clubs and twice with the centre. We have 1,000 players involved across the whole of Italy."

These are not new-builds, rather one club in a region is designated as the centre and players feed into that from clubs in a 30/40km radius. The Italian federation finances the coaching.

"The first thing is to get them to work five times a week, which is a really big change for them," Checcinato says. "The second thing is to see the motivation of the players. Part of the skills can be taught but we want to see which ones of the guys really want to make it. That will be the most important thing in the end."

This involves an investment of around €4.5m, which would explain why the Italian federation have made it clear to Celtic Rugby that ponying up €3m a year to keep two teams in the Pro12 is not conducive to them developing their game. That figure represents a third of the FIR's budget. There is another meeting, in London on Tuesday, to move forward the negotiations but despite the posturing what is clear is that Italy needs access to the Pro12 and the Pro12 needs two Italian representatives who can bring some quality.

Traditionally, that has come from Benetton Treviso, but the clothing company are tiring of the FIR wedging Zebre while they have to pick up most of the tab for Treviso. Without money for development there is no sense in having Italy on board.

"It's vital for us to have that," says Checcinato. "The problem was not the quality of the (Pro12) competition, it was that we were being asked to pay €3m to play. If we could have that money we could use it for the development of our players. It would give us more possibility to be competitive."

To that end, they have also ramped up their Academy structure at under 18 level, a tier above the new Centres of Formation, with nine now in operation as of this season.

"Yes, it's a big investment for us," Checcinato adds. "So the pyramid structure will be 1,000 players every year at under 16: we'll have roughly 500 players born in 1998 and another 500 born 1999. So every year from the older group of 500 we will choose about 140 players who will be joined to the nine regional academies. We might extend that to 10 by the beginning of next year. So in time we would want to have 30 players per academy where they live together.

"It's like a college: they will go to school in the morning and study and then every afternoon they train together. Than at the weekend they will go back to play with their clubs.

"On top of that the Academies will have their own competition playing eight matches per year, extending to nine if we expand to 10 Academies. At the beginning in Italy we had three regional academies and one national academy. Now we will have the 32 centres which are the base level for us to pick our players from."

From all the regional academies they will pick the top 36 players for the national academy. They will play in the national club competition, with the best being picked to play for Italy's two professional teams. If they can fast-track more home produced talent into the national side then the profile of the game in Italy will benefit, with knock-on commercial benefits.

"Already the improvement in profile here has been massive," says Checcinato. "Most of the players coming into the national team now come from small clubs so the roots are going deeper and deeper. But we need growth in terms of culture – this is very important. If we have 36 players joining the national academy every year then the other players who have come along the pathway will be club players or coaches or referees or people who will be in rugby. That is our future."

And it extends beyond what happens in Dublin on Saturday.

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