Italy’s poor performance against the All Blacks is not a one-faceted problem, but rather the algebraic sum of dozens of tiny factors.
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How did we get to this
The 96-17 thumping Italy received on Friday 29th of September 2023 will be remembered forever by us, the fans. This young team was literally taken to school by some of the best players in the world, and showed a complete lack of capability to play the game plan they had prepared. A total shellshock, as if the whole team was concussed and needed HIA already after 15 minutes of game, with even basic things like tackles not landing right. There’s no need to delve into the specifics of the game, because practically it was boys versus men. We need, however, to regroup and get to the bottom of this unbelievably bad performance. How did we get to this? There’s a million factors, some more relevant than others, which I’ll try to enucleate in this article with the hope to help foreign content creators understanding our rugby, its flaws and its merits.
A recent positive streak: a little hubris?
In the past two years Italy has won very important games such as the Six Nations game in Cardiff against Wales (March 2022, score: 21-22) and the Autumn Series match against Australia (November 2022, score: 28-27). They’ve also literally thumped Samoa in November 2022 (score: 49-17) and took care of Japan in August 2023 (score: 42-21). During the 2023 Six Nations they’ve not managed to win a game, but came close in two occasions. First, they lost against France in the very last action, where a driving maul was collapsed by the French preventing the Italians to drive it into try (final score: ITA 24-29 FRA). Then, they lost against Scotland in the last round again in the very last action, where an Italian ruck right under the Scottish posts saw a stolen ball that became the coast-to-coast Scottish try that we’ve all seen in the highlights (final score: SCO 26-14 ITA). With the score set at 19-14 for Scotland in that moment, if Italy had scored that try under the posts they would have very likely won the game. In the third round, they challenged Ireland losing 20-34 after a glorious first half. However, in the fourth round against a wounded Wales in Rome, exactly when expectations were on them, they did not live up to them and were down 3-22 already at halftime, partially saving their face in the second half.
Living up to expectations: not our cup of tea (yet)
Whenever there’s some attention drawn to the rugby National team in Italy, the team always manages to mess it up royally. It seems almost as if they cannot bear the pressure that mounts in situations like this, where the national TV grants you a slot in one of the three main channels on Friday at 9 PM and a million Italians are watching. A million is a lot for our standards, it means that many occasional curious people have chosen to watch the game, and this is your chance to reel them in. With a 96-17, they’ll think again before watching Italy again, sadly, because the Italian sports fan tends to prefer the win over the bel gioco (“style of play”); not that there was much of the latter, neither. As mentioned above, this happened also in the 2023 Six Nations against Wales when most people thought of us as the favourites. It happened at the France RWC 2007 against Scotland too. I was there in Saint Etienne, and I remember the electric atmosphere and the week leading to it. No one could stop saying “this is our time”, “this is our game”, “this is our chance”. The game will instead be a horrible game, as per the words of those who played it. Too many mistakes, too much pressure, and it ended 18-16 for Scotland with that penalty kick missed at minute 75′ that would have meant qualifying to the quarter finals for Italy. The list of failed occasions could go on and on, and is traditionally our biggest limit to overcome. After all, Italy is a Tier 1 nation only on paper, as it is obvious to anyone who watches rugby that it cannot be compared with any other Tier 1 nation. Some, in fact, use the jargon term “Tier 1.5”.
A piece of meat in the shark tank
In the year 2000 we joined the Five Nations to make it Six. We won the first game too, which made us feel like we deserved it. And yes, after 23 years, we still feel like that but the past 10 years have been hard to cope with. Seven years with no victories, lots of “project players” who didn’t deliver, lack of talent coming through, difficulties in synchronizing clubs, franchises and National team. In all this, rugby in Italy has grown for sure and it has gained followers, but not at the pace of the big rugby countries. And yet, when looking at the tier system, being in the Six Nations makes us de facto Tier 1 without actually having the strength of a tier 1 team. This means double expectactions, double envy from the excluded ones, double scrutiny everytime you mess up. Because every time you fail, as in the case of Friday night against the All Blacks, everyone in the world will say “they don’t belong there”. Have any Tier 2 team mess up like that, and people will just call it a normal thing. Now, Italy certainly isn’t a tier 2 team anymore and has proven that more than once by beating Samoa, Japan, Romania, Uruguay, Wales and Australia in less than two years. However, this particular form of the impostor syndrome looms over the team every time they wear the blue, feeling like they don’t actually belong with the big guys. And to some extent it is a legitimate feeling, because both the players and the fans know that they aren’t as strong as France when they play against them. Not even as strong as Scotland or Wales, for the matter: the distance from them is still quite large.
More info here (in Italian):
Novità, cambiamento, cambio di rotta, queste sono le classiche parole…
Still lots to do at grassroots level
Who’s writing this article is Italian, born and raised in Italy, and passionate about everything “italian rugby”. Although I had the luck to grow up in Treviso, arguably the Italian rugby capital, it’s not like we can claim to be a rugby nation through and through. No matter how hard the federation tries (with the slogan #rugbypassioneitaliana), rugby in Italy remained somewhat marginal. Nevertheless, it has surprisingly high amounts of money flowing in it due to the Six Nations participation and the URC. Some calculations placed it fourth in terms of cash flow among the Italian sports federations in 2021 (sadly, the link is now unavailable). But it isn’t the first, second or third choice for any kid unless: 1) their parents play rugby, 2) their friends play rugby, or 3) they are in the provinces of Treviso, Padova or Rovigo, or let’s face it, 4) if the kid’s a bit chubby. That hardly qualifies as a solid groundwork to build grassroots rugby in, which de facto makes Italy a tiny rugby country with a big name. Work on this matter has been done relentlessly by the Italian federation, sometimes with good results as in the recent partnership with the FIGC (the soccer federation) but it’s not paying dividends just yet. However, an élite pathway has been set up over the past 17 years which has slowly but steadily started to produce talent at a good rate. Most of the current national team and U20 national team has played in the FIR academy at some point in their career, which wasn’t the case even 10 years ago. In the past year, this system has been under revision by president Marzio Innocenti, which rose to power with the favour of many domestic clubs that wanted to review it in order to retain their best players.
More info here:
This article is intended for a non-Italian audience. It happens…
Too much politics
The grassroots system is supposed to detect talent and maximize its potential, but lots of friction between what the federation wants and what the clubs want is halting this process. Until last year, a National academy system was detecting potential future champions at the age of 15-16 and trying to bring them to formation centres distributed in the country, where they could complete high school while learning the craft of rugby preparing for becoming professionals. At the age of 18 the best athletes would be called to join the National academy, a single team where their development as players was the sole task of the coaching staff. An excellence centre that has given us many talents you see on the field today. However, it is understandable that clubs did not like to lose their best players to academies. This friction has gotten in the way of the development of a strong National team, but also was the current president’s electoral promise. Renewing the domestic league’s centrality, change the academy structure, leave players in their clubs more, and bring the high-level coaching to the clubs directly. This idea has not fully taken shape yet, many have lamented a big step backwards, and in the meantime a generation has not received the same level of training of their predecessors.
More info here:
The production of young, high-level talent in the Italian rugby…
Only one professional team performs
Our system includes two professional franchises and an underlying semi-pro domestic league which feeds these two franchises with promising talents. This process is not smooth: franchises often poach players from domestic clubs, now just in summer, but previously also during the season. The situation in the Veneto region seems more calm than elsewhere, with the best domestic teams Padova and Rovigo feeding Treviso with their best athletes. Other top-tier domestic clubs do that as well (e.g. Mogliano), while the other half of the clubs (e.g. Colorno, Viadana, Valorugby) feed into Zebre Parma. The latter is not performing well since its foundation in 2012, has not won more than 20% of the games that they played, and has been at the epicentre of the discussion every single year pretty much like Italy’s belonging to the Six Nations tournament. This federation had promised to take care of the problem and bring Zebre upwards, in order to have two professional teams performing well rather than just one (Benetton). This hasn’t happened so far, and has left no choice to the National team but to pick 16 players from Treviso for this world cup. In the past, this number has reached up to 26, and the difference is due to many players having left Italy, not a growth by Zebre. This, in my opinion, is the most important thing to fix.
So are we actually improving?
The short answer is “yes”. We are, slowly but steadily, applying patches everywhere there’s a leak and creating opportunities for young players to develop into fully professional athletes that have an impact in European Rugby. Paolo Garbisi went off to Montpellier to win a Bouclier de Brennus at the age of 21. Danilo Fischetti left Zebre for London Irish, had a great impact on the team, and if it wasn’t for the club’s folding, he would have stayed in the Prem longer. Marco Riccioni left Treviso for the Saracens and won a Premiership with them after recovering from a bad injury. The bulk of the national team plays in Benetton Rugby and led the club to a great 2022/23 season, culminated with a Challenge Cup semifinal and a great chance to qualify for the playoffs. The U20 national team has won against many quality opponents, the most prestigious being South Africa, defeated this year in Paarl at the U20 World Cup. There is progress in every aspect of Italian rugby, although sometimes the speed at which it takes place could discourage those who glance occasionally. Not having a great talent pool, we had to face tackle multiple issues in order to stay relevant. Now, it’s our turn to make diamonds out of these raw young talents, rather than crushing them with irrealistic expectations.