Italian revolution or another false dawn? Mallett rolls the dice

Azzurri game has been radically revamped, but their coach may not survive to see his project bear fruit. Chris Hewett reports
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The Independent Online

The scene? It is November 2009 and we are in San Siro stadium in Milan – yes, that San Siro, the great football temple at the heart of one of the world's great footballing cities – to watch a game of rugby.

Not any old game, granted, for the All Blacks are in town, but a game of rugby all the same. The score? New Zealand struggle horribly before sneaking home 20-6, thanks to the grace of God, a following wind and plenty of help from the referee. The attendance? Even more surprising. Almost 80,000 spectators are inside the ground, waving their flags and singing their songs. Anyone looking for evidence that the sport might actually mean something in Italy need look no further.

Another snapshot of rugby, Azzurri-style. Four domestic league sides – Crociati, Rovigo, I Cavalieri Estra and Padova – play 24 pool matches in this season's Amlin Challenge Cup, a second-tier European tournament featuring, for the most part, teams who are semi-interested at best and entirely useless at worst. They manage three wins between them and end the pool stage on the painful end of an average scoreline reading 45-13. Anyone looking for a reason why the game will never catch on in Italy need look no further.

Somewhere between these two extremes lays the reality. Italian rugby is much stronger than those who continue to resent the country's presence in the shop window of the northern hemisphere game, the Six Nations Championship, like to make out, but progress has been nowhere near as rapid as supporters had hoped when the newcomers entered the tournament in 2000 and celebrated with an immediate win over Scotland in Rome. There is a touch of the Orson Welles syndrome about it all: brilliant shafts of light are not uncommon, but they are dimmed by a persistent suspicion that the project will never quite come to anything.

Rugby's leading Test nations, not exactly noted for their selfless generosity towards their weaker brethren, cannot afford to allow the Azzurri to wither on the vine: there are already too few teams of genuine stature, or with genuine potential for growth, without the country of the Francescatos, the Cuttittas and the Bergamascos rotting away to nothing. Yet, if there have been times when the Italians have been treated scandalously by those who sit in governance over the international game – the smug, cosily clubbable Five Nations fraternity of old were far too slow in giving them a seat at the top table, while Rugby World Cup administrators effectively drove them out of the 2003 competition by loading the fixture schedule in favour of teams with greater box-office appeal – there have also been periods of self-delusion, bordering on self-destruction.

A year ago, the former England coach Brian Ashton – a pioneering figure in Italian rugby, having played and coached in the country during the 1970s – wrote in these pages of the "the vibrant mix of uncompromising toughness, passion and élan" he found there, before mourning its sudden evaporation. "Sadly, this spirit has been lost," he continued, "largely because of the direction in which professionalism has driven the sport. There are too many overseas players, few better than third-rate and many of them sixth-rate, playing for the leading clubs, and as a result, young Italians with potential are given too few opportunities. In addition, a shortage of money has driven the proven home-grown talent abroad, some to England and many more to France. There is a burning need for the Italian game to rediscover the virtues on which it was traditionally based: a highly physical approach shot through with footballing ambition. Instead, it is dominated by southern hemisphere imports playing a form of rugby unsuited to the Italian temperament."

Just recently, those thoughts were echoed by someone who knows even more about Azzurri rugby. "Italy were strong in the mid-1990s, but were left behind when the sport went open," explained Nick Mallett, the experienced, hugely accomplished coach who brings the national team to Twickenham this afternoon for their 17th meeting with England. "There was nothing in the country's union structure that prepared players for the rigours of the professional game, and as the best players from that 1990s vintage retired, the team fell further and further behind. Hence, the growing influence of personnel from the southern hemisphere. Two years ago, there was a grand final between Treviso and Viadana in which only six players on the field were born in Italy. If we'd continued like that, the game would have gone only one way: downhill."

It was Mallett, over the course of "many meetings and many dinners" with Giancarlo Dondi, the long-serving president of the Federazione Italiana Rugby, who pressed the case for a more concentrated form of professionalism: the downgrading of the 10-team domestic championship in favour of the establishment of two elite sides good enough to compete alongside the Welsh regions, the Irish provinces and the Scottish super-clubs in the Magners League. "The president agreed, and luckily, he was in a strong enough position to carry the argument," the coach said. "Let's not pretend it was easy for him. The presidency is a political position, dependant on voting support. He took some very bold, very brave steps in closing down league rugby in large areas of the country."

Now the deed has been done, it is Mallett's task to prove to the Italian rugby public that the pain was worth it. If the two Magners League teams, an expanded version of the long-established Treviso club and newly created Aironi, can survive and thrive in the Celtic bloc over the next two or three seasons and perhaps find a way of landing some meaningful blows at Heineken Cup level, the gap between the grandeur of that occasion in Milan and the utter pointlessness of those humiliations in Europe can, and will, be closed.

Above all, the Italians need time. Leaving aside regular fixtures with neighbouring France from the early 1950s through to the late 1960s and a couple of outings against Australia, their exposure to top level international rugby did not begin in earnest until the first World Cup in 1987. Since then, they have beaten the French (once), the Scots (six times) and the Welsh (twice). They have finished within striking distance of England on four occasions, within 10 points of Ireland seven times and given the Wallabies a hurry-up more often than most people might imagine.

This is no bad record, all things considered, for in rugby – a highly technical sport in which even the fittest, most committed teams can easily be outmanoeuvred by opponents blessed with greater know-how – success drips slowly. The French required 17 attempts to register a victory over England, and spent damned near half-a-century building towards their first outright Five Nations title in 1954.

Mallett may yet pay for his radicalism: Dondi, his co-conspirator in the deconstruction of Italy's domestic game, has been talking to the Perpignan coach Jacques Brunel about a post-World Cup succession. "I want to continue," said the incumbent, whose current four-year agreement is in its closing stages. "The federation has the right to change things if they want, but I've done a lot of work with this team and there are many opportunities for progress.

"We now have three new academies to go with the two new Magners League franchises. What does that mean? It means there's a recognisable career path for good players, wherever in the country they emerge. So much of the interest in the game in Italy is concentrated in the north-east, but at least a talented youngster from Naples has a decent chance of being noticed. There is an internal structure in place now, and it will deliver. This season, I have 30 Test-standard players available to me. When I arrived, there were 10. I have six guys who can play centre instead of two; four or five scrum-halves who can play international rugby, not one."

Few seriously believe the Italians will win in London this afternoon. "England are the side on the steepest upward curve, and it is still the case that no one expects to lose to us," Mallett admitted. But if the restructuring bears fruit and the country produces more players of the standard of the brilliant young scrum-half Edoardo Gori, who would surely have illuminated Twickenham had he not suffered a championship-ending injury last weekend, they will return here for the World Cup in 2015 with a more realistic chance of upsetting the applecart.

Il buono, il brutto: Italy's most famous wins...and defeats

Three days in the sun...

Grenoble 1997: France 32 Italy 40

The Azzurri run in four tries, matching their hosts blow for blow, and make a better fist of the goal-kicking through Diego Dominguez to turn the rugby world on its head.

Rome 2000: Italy 34 Scotland 20

Dominguez does the trick again, kicking six penalties and a conversion – not to mention three drop goals – in earning his side victory on their Six Nations debut.

Edinburgh 2007: Scotland 17 Italy 37

A first championship victory on the road – and a four-try win at that. The Scots are in generous mood, but Mauro Bergamasco is sensational all the same.

...and three in the dark

Twickenham 2001: England 80 Italy 23

England, operating near the peak of their attacking powers, hand the Azzurri their worst Six Nations defeat, scoring 10 tries. Jonny Wilkinson converts nine of them.

Marseilles 2007: New Zealand 76 Italy 14

The Italians turn their backs on the All Black haka at the start of this World Cup pool match and keep them turned, falling 38 points behind inside 18 minutes.

Rome 2011: Italy 11 Ireland 13

They should record a first victory over the Irish. One botched restart ensures they don't, and the closeness of the call is no consolation. Heartbreaking.