The new Italy coach is under no illusions as to the challenge he faces but insists there are signs of a positive future for the Azzurri. Mark Palmer reports

Kieran Crowley on Italy’s search for identity 

A sign went up on the walls of the Italy changing room for the Autumn Nations Series. Create a team identity it read, reflecting the message that new coach Kieran Crowley has been keen to hammer home.

The New Zealander, who took over from Franco Smith last summer, is desperate for the Azzurri to realise who and what they are. With previous incarnations of this team, these have been straightforward questions to answer: lots of large men looking to do equally big things in the tight exchanges. A side that knew its strengths and played to them, unapologetically and consistently.

In recent years, however, that sense of certainty, that sense of self, has been largely missing. Under Smith, Italy often spoke of trying to broaden their attacking horizons and ended up increasing their margin for error. It looked unconvincing and it was wholly unsuccessful. In striving to break new ground, the team lost all semblance of direction.

A whole load of young players were blooded by the previous coach, some more on the grounds of their youth than any apparent readiness for the Test arena. Even the better ones – Paolo Garbisi, Stephen Varney, Federico Mori, Marco Zanon – did not have anything like the right structures around them to make the most of their talent.

“You should not apologise for your core strengths,” says Crowley, a passionate yet considered figure who was with Benetton for five years, delivering the parting gift of a remarkable Rainbow Cup success. “If you take a classic example from that perspective, it’s South Africa: they show that you should play to your strengths.

“Italy’s strengths in the past years was their scrum and their forwards, and they haven’t quite got that now, through the change in personnel in those positions. We have to find what we’re good at as a group, establish that in our plan and build on it. We’ve got to find out what those strengths are, because you need to be able to go back to something when the tough times come.

“It’s not a bleak picture. Everyone knows the results of the Italian national team in the last few years, but the U18s have had some very good victories and the U20s in the Six Nations have always been competitive. They’ve finished mid-table a couple of times.

“There are good young boys coming through, but we still lack the depth in some key positions. In Test-match rugby at the top level, you’ve got to have some big men up front and we probably lack a little bit in that area. So we have to be innovative sometimes in selections or the way we play it.”

Crowley has opted for a new captain, replacing hooker Luca Bigi with Michele Lamaro, a back-row he rates highly from his Benetton days. A former skipper of the national U20 team who led them to two wins over Scotland in 2018, the 23-year-old has long been marked out for a big future but has had to make up ground having missed almost 12 months after rupturing a cruciate ligament in early 2019. He made his return shortly before coronavirus shut down rugby, then the world.

“We want new leaders to emerge, new guys to step up and own it, and Michele was an obvious choice for me,” says Crowley of a man who is close friends with Scotland No 8 Matt Fagerson from the days of their age-grade encounters.

“I think he would have risen to this point earlier, but he had a major injury that robbed him of so much time and last year he took a little while to find his feet again, as you do after a major injury.

“He’s got some good young guys around him; young guys who have had leadership experience on their way through. But you’ve still got to have older heads, the guys who can help them along the way. Michele will be looking to guys like Luca to help him in that area. They’re all 100% behind it because they want Italy to do well. They’re all pushing in the right direction to get results and the leadership group is starting to develop.”

There have been significant shifts in the Italian game as a whole since Marzio Innocenti, the former Azzurri captain, wrested the presidency of the national federation away from Alfredo Gavazzi in March. One of Innocenti’s first acts was to put Smith in charge of the high-performance wing and he’s also showing much more love to the regions and clubs, all of whom were starved of resources and attention while Gavazzi was at the helm.

“Marzio Innocenti has made a lot of changes already and he’s very much that we’ve all got to push in the same direction, whereas in the past it’s been a bit disjointed,” says Crowley. “There are going to be some massive challenges with that, because if something has been happening for years you can’t change things overnight.

“We’ve got the talent identification system there, it’s just how we transfer those players from U18s and U20s and keep getting the right support around them so they can then transition into the Italian national team and really come through.

“That’s where the break has been; it’s a fault of the system. Clubs often haven’t got the facilities that are needed, they’re semi-professional… Marzio Innocenti is certainly making a push to try to make the whole landscape better and to ensure that players get more opportunities.”

Italy loss to France on the opening weekend of the 2022 Six Nations made it 33 straight championship defeats; they haven’t won in the tournament since beating Scotland at Murrayfield in February 2015. Crowley is under “absolutely no illusion” about the scale of the challenge, but he is quite clear about what he wants to see.

“I’d like to see us make some massive improvements in some of our statistics. Last year we were the most penalised team by a long way, we gave away the most tries from a defensive point of view. I would like to see that we are very competitive in every game and that we can tough out an 80 minutes.

“And on the back of that, that we have created a style that we can play. If that pushes us to a win, that would be absolutely outstanding, but if we can come out with some real improvements in performances, particularly scores being a lot closer, that would be a success that would give us a platform leading into our summer tour, which would then help us springboard into the World Cup year.

“Through hard work we can get some credibility and respect with our performances. That is not necessarily a win or a loss but by the effort and performance we put out there.”

Already looming on the horizon is the 2023 Rugby World Cup, where Italy are again in a pool with New Zealand, as well as the hosts. Assuming there are no typhoons in France at that time of year, Crowley might actually get to face the team he played for at full-back in both the 1987 and 1991 global gatherings.

“It will be my sixth World Cup. I had those two as a player, then I was a (NZ) selector in 2003 when John Mitchell and Robbie Deans were the coaches. I then coached Canada in 2011 and 2015.

“Going up against New Zealand at a World Cup will be nothing new: I did it with Canada in 2011. They’re another team. I’ll be totally focused on the Italian team and what we’re trying to get out of it, our performance. There’s so much we want to do with this team, and so much we can do.”

This article originally appeared in Rugby World’s February 2022 edition.

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