Giovanelli urges Italy to move out of shadows

Inspirational flanker turned coach aiming to ensure Azzurri will be no pushovers at Twickenham today.
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Massimo Giovanelli, the great untamed pirate of a flanker who pillaged the high seas of international rugby for more than a decade, is in dry dock now.

Massimo Giovanelli, the great untamed pirate of a flanker who pillaged the high seas of international rugby for more than a decade, is in dry dock now.

A near-fatal car crash and two shattered legs failed to stop him in his tracks, but when his retina detached itself from the rest of his eye during Italy's wonderful Six Nations victory over Scotland last year, he finally got the message.

Still, England will see him in their thoughts when they run out at Twickenham this afternoon: the beaten-up face, the straggling Captain Morgan locks, the "don't even think about mixing it with me" stubble. And if they look up into the West Stand, they will see him for real.

Theoretically, it would be just about possible to keep Giovanelli away from south-west London today, but only with the aid of an army. "Will I be there? Of course," he confirmed. "In the dressing-room? Naturally." And what might you be telling them in there, Massimo? "This is simple. I will tell them that it is not for the English to trample our rugby underfoot. That we deserve respect, and that we will fight for respect. Everyone in England thinks this is a training match for the national team. I think differently, and I will make sure that my countrymen think differently.

"England have 75,000 people behind them, but they are only 15 strong, just like us. They must learn that it is dangerous to skin the lion before it has been killed."

The Italian hierarchy knew what they were at when they presented the recently-retired Giovanelli with his new dual role: assistant coach to the Test team, answerable to the New Zealander Brad Johnstone, and firebrand-in-chief to an entire rugby nation, answerable to no one but the blue-shirted Almighty.

His commitment to the march of Italian union is total, to the extent that he is doing all this for free. "I have some savings from my playing days," he said this week as his charges completed their preparations at an Olympic training base near Pisa, "and I'm spending that money now. It's my choice. When my money runs out, I will think about how to get some more."

This, of course, is Azzurri rugby all over. It is entirely typical of the Federazione Italiana Rugby that it should avoid paying the country's most revered home-grown player so much as a brass lira for his efforts; one way or another, the FIR avoids paying for lots of things.

According to Mike Brewer, another New Zealander caught up in the madcap political maelstrom raging from Treviso to L'Aquila and back again, the frustrations of running a rugby operation in Italy remove several layers of shine from the seductive lifestyle.

"Everything is left to the clubs," said Brewer, who coached a young, dangerously inexperienced L'Aquila side to Heineken Cup qualification this season.

"There is no central funding at all; in fact, the clubs pay the FIR for the right to play competitive rugby. Television coverage? That's a laugh. The clubs are currently producing their own 60-minute highlights package in an attempt to raise the profile of the sport. We're performing the Federation's role for it. Why? Because it won't get off its arse and do what it's meant to be doing.

"But that's Italy, isn't it? Politics everywhere. For a guy in Brad's position, it's a no-win nightmare. There is no structure here; you only have to look at the performances and results turned in by the A team and the Under-21s to realise that there is no development system in place.

"If Brad picks home-grown players before they're ready, he gets whipped on the field. If he packs his side with experienced Argentinians and Frenchmen who happen to have Italian passports, he gets it in the neck from the press and public.

"There is an FIR plan on the table, but it's going to cause one hell of a row. The plan is simple: split Italy in two - north, and central-south -and follow the provincial route. A two-stream system, featuring all the best players. From the national perspective, it's the only way to go. The Test team has to be the shop window, and by concentrating the talent into a couple of genuinely competitive sides, Italian rugby at the top end will develop reasonably quickly. But the clubs will lose everything they've worked for -- and, believe me, the clubs are the only ones who are making things happen in this country. It's a tough one, for sure."

Which is the way Massimo the Mighty likes it: Giovanelli and tough go together like ruck and maul. He accepts that the relationship between FIR and its clubs is "not fantastic", and agrees that the Italian game as a whole is short of direction.

Like Brewer, he takes the Federation to task for its stinginess. "This season, Roma and L'Aquila played in the Heineken Cup," he said. "Where did the money go? To the union. This needs to be talked through and sorted out.

"The clubs need money if the game is to be professionalised, but, even before money, they need a relationship with the Federation. I am fascinated by this. I want to move into rugby administration, to get people around the table." And, no doubt, to smack a few heads, just as he did as a player.

But today, of all days, he is living for the moment. Giovanelli fought and sacrificed himself for this moment, and he intends to treasure it, albeit from a seat above the players' tunnel.

"I see a lot of Huddersfield in this situation," he said, referring to the knife-edge World Cup qualifying match with England at the McAlpine Stadium in November 1998.

"The week before that game, we were hearing the things we're hearing now: that we were a team of the second level, that we were not good enough to threaten England. When the day came, England needed a French referee to save them.

"This time, we have no Dominguez, no Troncon, and this is a great loss for us. But England will find that this is a different game to the one they experienced in Wales. Our scrum is strong, very strong, and the scrum can decide this game. So, we have only two professional clubs in Italy. How many big teams do Scotland have? Two. And Ireland? Three. Compared to them, the only things we do not have are structure and history.

"We are on a level with these teams. Were Ireland really so much better than us in Rome in the first match? I don't think so. Not at all."

Giovanelli has faith in the hard men he spent a sporting lifetime fighting alongside - Carlo Checchinato, Andrea Lo Cicero, Mauro Bergamasco ("ah, my man Mauro; he must lead the way") - because he knows he must. If Giovanelli did not believe, no other Italian would give his countrymen a prayer.

And prayers are pretty much all they have going for them at Twickenham this afternoon. As Brewer, one of the great tacticians of the modern All Black era, put it this week: "What can Italy expect from this one? A bloody good hiding, basically.

"I have no hesitation," he continued, "in praising their tight five. Lo Cicero and Moscardi and Muraro can play; they won their contest with the Irish forwards, no question.

"But the back row lacks balance, with two natural open-sides and uncertainty at No 8. The senior half-backs are missing, and there's not too much outside them in the threes at the best of times.

"We'll get a match for half an hour, I reckon. Once the tight five start to tire - and they can only hold things together for so long - the loosies will lose their shape and the holes will appear. I think it's pretty clear how the game will go."

So there you have it: Giovanelli, a man with his heart on his sleeve and a clear idea of how Italian rugby should express itself in an ideal world, and Brewer, a dedicated rationalist who understands the reality of the thing as it is now. As one of the last century's more perceptive poets famously put it: "Between the idea and the reality falls the shadow".

That shadow is likely to be darker than dark at Twickenham this afternoon.

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