Nick Vivian Haward Mallett
Age 54 (30 October 1956)
Birthplace Haileybury, England
Coaching history Boland, South Africa, Stade Français
Record as Italy coach
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Italy have made clear progress under Nick Mallett – and he will want to bow out with a bang, says Gavin Mortimer
The stats suggest Nick Mallett’s time in charge of Italy has yielded little success: six wins in 36 matches and just three victories in 20 Six Nations outings – two of those against the Scots. Yet the third of those Six Nations triumphs will ensure Mallett’s place in Italian folklore – the 22-21 defeat of reigning Grand Slam champions France in Rome in March. It was a victory built on bloody-mindedness and self-belief, two traits that in the past ten years have hardly characterised Italian rugby.
Yet Mallett’s reward for beating France was to be told by the Italian federation that his services won’t be required once his contract expires at the end of the World Cup. The powers-that-be feel he’s taken the side as far as he can during his four-year tenure; a fresh approach is needed and Perpignan’s Jacques Brunel will take over, so it’s arrivederci as far as Mallett is concerned – regardless of how the Azzurri perform in New Zealand.
It’s a decision one suspects won’t sit well with the players, certainly not captain Sergio Parisse, who said of Mallett in the aftermath of the French success: “I want to dedicate this victory to him… he’s the only coach who believed in us.” Mallett has a habit of instilling self-belief in his players, no surprise since he’s not short of the stuff himself.
Born 54 years ago above the music room at Haileybury College in England, Mallett was still in nappies when his family emigrated to Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) where his father took up a teaching appointment. Seven years later the Malletts moved to South Africa and he considers himself a native of that land.
Mallett returned to England in the 1970s to read history at Oxford University – and to escape the apartheid policy of the South African government – and won a double blue in rugby and cricket. In 1984 he also earned two Springbok caps at No 8, but it’s as a coach that Mallett has touched greatness in the rugby world.
Having started out with Boland, a provincial side in South Africa, Mallett became the assistant Springboks coach in 1996 and the following year took on the top job. In the next three years he transformed the South Africa side from an unimaginative and predictable outfit to one that was able to mix flair with ferocity. Between August 1997 and December 1998 the Springboks won 17 matches on the bounce, a winning streak to equal that of the All Blacks of the late 1960s.
Despite his record of 27 wins in 38 Tests – a 71% success rate that is surpassed in Springboks history only by Kitch Christie – Mallett resigned in 2000 after comments he made
about exorbitant ticket prices caused a falling-out with the South African board.
For the next four years he coached Stade Français, taking them to the 2001 Heineken Cup final and bringing the French title to Paris twice. He returned to the Test arena in 2007, taking over from Pierre Berbizier to become Italy’s coach in the aftermath of the World Cup. At the time Mallett said: “Trying to make Italy competitive and hopefully successful is as big a challenge as I’ve ever had as a coach.”
It was a challenge, but one he tackled with characteristic boldness. He began to ‘Italianise’ the squad, opting for home-grown players over Kiwis with a long-lost relative from Rovigo. Not all of Mallett’s ideas bore fruit – will Mauro Bergamasco ever forgive him for moving him from flanker to scrum-half against England in their 2009 Six Nations clash? – but he did indeed make Italy more competitive.
There might have been only six wins in Mallett’s four-year tenure, but Italy became a tough nut to crack at home.
In 2009 they held New Zealand to 20-6 in Milan. In the following year’s Six Nations England almost came a cropper, their 17-12 victory a foretaste of things to come for Ireland and Wales this year, as the Celtic teams scraped home 13-11 and 24-16 respectively.
Against France, Italy went one better, showing they had the mindset to close out tight games. “It’s one of my proudest moments as a coach,” said Mallett. “But the joy has been about improving a side.”
The pressure is off Mallett at this year’s World Cup in New Zealand. Whether they manage to progress beyond the pool stage or not, he’s heading for the door – but the man born above a music room will want to go out on a high note.
This article appeared in Part 1 of our Rugby World Cup Supplement.
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