If the English clubs get their way in the great debate over the future of the Heineken Cup – a debate some "stakeholders" expect to be concluded by Christmas, which seems wildly optimistic unless they are talking about Christmas 3012 – Italy's interest in the world's best club competition will wither on the vine like Sangiovese grapes with a bad case of black rot. It is a wickedly short-sighted approach, as Treviso demonstrated at Welford Road yesterday afternoon.
The men from the Veneto might have recorded a first victory on English soil since doing for Harlequins in south-west London a dozen seasons ago but for some – how can we put it? – interesting refereeing from the Irish official George Clancy and some selectorial oddities of their own design. Had they done so, the case for guaranteeing the Italians at least one seat at the top-table tournament would have been even more overwhelming than it was at the start of this latest political spat over format, governance, broadcasting rights and financial distribution.
Northern hemisphere rugby needs Italy to ripen and mature as a union nation, just as the southern hemisphere needs Argentina and at least one of the South Seas islands to make the best of themselves. To ensure this happens – to guard successfully against the appeal of the annual Six Nations Championship contracting rather than expanding by providing the Azzurri national team with the conditions in which to grow – Heineken Cup entry is an essential. Without it, a potential rugby market of considerable size will be lost.
Franco Smith, the Treviso coach, picked a strange side for this visit to the two-time champions: he left his best hooker, Leonardo Ghiraldini, and his most effective tight-head prop, Lorenzo Cittadini, on the bench; there was no sign of Alessandro Zanni or Robert Barbieri, the high-calibre international flankers; there was no starting place for Alberto Di Bernardo, a goal-kicker of considerable potency. It was as if Smith had given up on this game before kick-off.
"Yes, we were a little surprised," confessed Richard Cockerill, the Midlanders' rugby director. "Treviso had their own agenda, I guess: with all due respect to them, they'd already lost two games and were pretty much out of the running for a quarter-final place, so maybe they thought they'd hold people back for their home game against us."
That home game at Stadio di Monigo this coming Saturday will be intriguing indeed – as Cockerill reminded his audience, Leicester very nearly lost there two seasons ago – but in terms of interest, yesterday's match would have been utterly compelling had Treviso travelled with the full complement and gone Tiger-hunting from the start of the first half, rather than waiting for the start of the second.
Treviso found themselves 19 points adrift at the break thanks to an early penalty try conceded by a second-string front row of the powder-puff variety, a freakish – not to say deeply questionable – ricochet try scored by Manu Tuilagi and a brace of touchdowns from flanker Julian Salvi. The first of these was a length-of-the field gem, which Salvi instigated with a ruck-ball turnover in his own 22 and finished at the sticks after excellent contributions from Mathew Tait and Thomas Waldrom. But for a determined corner-flag finish from their own Antipodean breakaway specialist, the extravagantly bearded New Zealander Dean Budd, the underdogs would have turned round without a point to their names.
But they were an entirely different proposition after the interval. Ghiraldini and Cittadini, summoned from the bench a few seconds before the half-time whistle, established a measure of authority at the set-piece and this allowed Edoardo Gori, the brilliant scrum-half talent from Prato, to tear up the Leicester fringe defence. Within minutes, Cittadini had completed a grunt-and-groaner's try from close range, and even though Leicester struck again through Matt Smith after taking advantage of Clancy's harsh banishment of Simone Favaro to the cooler – having tackled his heart out, the flanker was carded for dragging down a maul – the balance of the contest had changed significantly.
Gori might have been awarded a try just past the hour-mark – Clancy's view that there had been a knock-on in the build-up was not obviously supported by the television replay footage – but when Christian Loamanu found his way over the line from a poorly controlled home scrum, the possibility of an upset was very much alive.
Unfortunately for the Italians, they overcooked a couple of late attacks and could not improve on a second Di Bernardo penalty on 68 minutes – a three-pointer that was not quite enough to give them the losing bonus they so richly deserved. But there was another kind of consolation for Treviso in the sight of Leicester seriously considering going for the sticks themselves as late as the 75th minute. Such a thing would have been unimaginable in the days when Azzurri teams playing in England were beaten long before the slicing of the half-time oranges.
"In a way, it's a case of job done: we needed a bonus-point victory and we delivered it," Cockerill said. "But the way the pool is shaping up, we'll need another one in Treviso next weekend. Whether that's attainable or not, we'll have to see. Toulouse didn't get one there, did they?"
Indeed they did not – a fact that reinforces the argument that the Heineken Cup needs an Italian presence every bit as much as the Italians need the Heineken Cup.
Scorers: Leicester – Tries: Salvi 2, penalty try, Tuilagi, Smith. Conversions: Ford 4. Treviso – Tries: Budd, Cittadini, Loamanu. Conversions: Di Bernardo 2. Penalties: Di Bernardo 2.
Leicester: M Tait; S Hamilton, M Tuilagi, D Bowden, V Goneva (M Smith h-t); G Ford, B Youngs (M Young 66); M Ayerza (L Mulipola 61), T Youngs (R Hawkins h-t), M Castrogiovanni. G Kitchener, G Parling (capt, J Crane 61), E Slater, J Salvi (R Thorpe 60), T Waldrom.
Treviso: L McLean; C Loamanu, T Benvenuti, L Morisi (F Semenzato 64), A Pratichetti; J Ambrosini (A Di Bernardo 27), E Gori; I Fernandez Rouyet (M Rizzo 40), F Sbaraglini (L Ghiraldini 40), J Roux (L Cittadini 40), A Pavanello (capt, F Minto 40), V Bernabo, S Favaro, D Budd, M Vosawai (P Derbyshire 64).
Referee: G Clancy (Ireland).Reuse content