Italian Rugby: Crisis or progress?
Coming off their visit to Dublin, Italy had recorded their 14th 6 Nations loss in a row. They’ve won just one in 13 test matches and have claimed just 4 wins in the 18 games since Conor O’Shea’s appointment.
And the trend showed no sign of stopping two weeks ago in the Aviva. As Henshaw touched down for Ireland’s third try the game was effectively over as a contest. It really was a breeze for Schmidt’s men.
Fast forward to Tuesday and having read the almighty Gerry Thornley’s review of the Italian set up in the Irish Times we can’t help but be concerned for Italian rugby.
As he correctly points out other international teams have gone through rough patches. He speaks of Ireland’s 90s form specifically:
“However, lest we forget, Irish rugby wasn’t so hot itself once upon a time. Witness the not so plentiful 1990s: between 1988 and 1999 Ireland never finished above the bottom two. In 48 matches over those 12 years, Ireland achieved only 10 wins, with two draws and 36 defeats.”
But is that really the same? Is it fair to make that comparison?
A different era
It’s clear that rugby was in a much different place in the 90s than it is today. In Ireland the set up was significantly more lax. Listen to the tales of any ex-Irish international from that time and you'll hear stories of guys adopting what we would describe in these days as a carefree, basically unprofessional approach.
Ok, so maybe unprofessional is a tad harsh, but it was certainly a different scene. Brian O’Driscoll has spoken frankly about the domestic and international set up during this period. Quite simply, this was a time were professionalism wasn’t the primary concern. Players drank and partied more and basically ate according to their own desires. Nutrition and dietary welfare were an afterthought.
Now obviously things started to move on from this as the sport progressed. Professionalism and personal responsibility took a stranglehold on the game and the players followed suit.
But what relevance is all this to Italy?
What we’re saying is that you can’t compare these periods. What Thornley is looking at doesn’t quite ring true for today. There are two vastly different times for the sport and using it to excuse Italy’s current performance is the definition of a stretched argument.
Italy have been dreadful of late and have virtually locked themselves in to finish last in this year’s competition. The whipping boys tag seems to permanently hang over this squad.
It’s a tough situation for sure. We’re big fans of Conor O’Shea here and as Thornley points out, his team has worked tirelessly to change the very fundamentals of Italian rugby. They’ve looked to improve the academy set up and have quite clearly improved at the U20 level.
Domestically, improvements can also be seen. In this season’s PRO14 Zebre and Treviso have 4 times as many wins than they did at this stage last season. But is this enough?
Academy development is a fantastic start for Italy but it’s unlikely to bear fruit for the next few years, and with Georgia waiting in the wings, is it fair?
The reality is that Georgia have been sat atop the Rugby Europe Championship for several years now and they are a vastly better side than this Italy one.
It’s been bounded about for some time now but Georgia really do deserve a shot. Their squad is chock-full of players playing at the top tier of French rugby and it’s clear that this Georgian team mean business.
But what’s the solution?
An upgrade to a “7 Nations” doesn’t seem too likely and just dropping Italy out of the competition is probably only likely to harm rugby development there.
Is relegation an option? Maybe a playoff between the Europe Championship winner and the holder of the 6 Nations wooden spoon? Also tough to envision.
The problem here is that Italy seem to be momentarily stuck between progress and crisis. What do you think can be done?