Aironi Rugby will make an impact on the 16th Heineken Cup before the end of the Pool stage – that is the promise of former Wales back row forward Rowland Phillips, now the defence coach with the new Italian franchise.
And Phillips, capped 10 times by Wales while a dynamic force in the Neath back row, insists the tournament new boys are relishing welcoming 1998 Heineken Cup champions Bath Rugby to Stadio Luigi Zaffanella on Saturday for their Pool 4 match.
“The Bath match is absolutely huge for us,” said Phillips.
“We are really looking forward to playing them and, while the 30-6 scoreline against us at Ulster suggests a one-sided affair and yes, they did put us under pressure, we do not feel we got the rub of the green on at least three occasions.
“We appreciate Bath will be strong favourites but we want to continue developing our game and, be it on Saturday at Bath or some other time some where else, we want to make a statement.
“We want to make that statement and not just drift through this Heineken Cup campaign, we want to play a real part in it and be of some influence in our group.
“I know others may have different ideas about Italian rugby but I can assure you the one thing they don’t lack is passion – and that passion to both improve and be competitive is one of the great strengths of the Italian game.
“They really are as passionate about their rugby as any team I have been involved with.”
It is all about the learning curve for the new boys and Phillips insists they will prove quick learners.
“I think that your first season in any tournament – be it the Celtic League or the Heineken Cup – it is all about our players realising the competitions we are now involved in are big steps up from what most of them have experienced in the past,” he said
“It is not only about the quality of the play. The big difference is that every weekend they are involved in hugh pressure and high intensity matches.
“We are in a transitional period and the challenge is to get the players to realise that whereas they had two peaks to aim for each season – the November internationals and the 6 Nations Championship – now it is that sort of match for them week in and week out.
“It is all about getting them accustomed to the fact that their working week is now a different working week, the demands are considerably greater.
“Sure we would appear to be up against it with the demands of travel involved in 13 away games in the season but actually it is probably only an extra hour or so in the air than say, for a Scottish side, and while we did not get back from Ulster until 5.00am at least you were sleeping in your own bed.
“I see the major hurdle we have to clear as being the level of professionalism we have to take on board, things like the recovery process and attention to the small details of preparation is what are going to be vitally important if we want to be as competitive as we want to be every single weekend.
“To be fair we have a lot of players for whom this is all a big step up and, while we do have a core of international players who have tasted this level before as with anything new, the challenge is really understanding what is expected of you individually.
“The big plus is having a group of players who are so keen to learn. No-one was suggesting there would be miracles in our first few months and it is vital we build on what we are doing towards next season and the seasons after that.”