To put it bluntly, Nick Mallett could be the best coach in the Six Nations' Championship in charge of the worst team. And though the new man in charge of Italy, who among his other fine achievements completed a world-record run of Test wins with South Africa, could talk the hind legs off a lion in the Colosseum, he can be blunt as you like.
"I've never had so little time to prepare a team," said Mallett, who succeeded Pierre Berbizier in November. "I had no idea who any of the players were at my first camp, and picking a squad was like moving the deckchairs on the Titanic."
Italian supporters should not fret. This voluble son of Hertfordshire – who was raised in Zimbabwe and South Africa, was a No 8 with Oxford University and Italian and French clubs, and served the Springboks as player and coach – can be expected to catch up quickly.
Mallett's most recent job, as director of rugby at Western Province, mirrored what the Italian Federation want from him: overseeing the national side with a brief to improve the entire supporting structure.
Mallett is leaning heavily on the inside knowledge of his assistants, Carlo Orlandi and Jean-Philippe Cariat, both survivors from the Berbizier regime, but there is no doubt who is in control.
Witness Italy's problem position – well, one of their problem positions after a disappointing World Cup which ended in defeat by Scotland – of fly-half. Mallett has trusted the No 10 jersey to the stocky Andrea Masi of Biarritz for the entire Six Nations. What if Masi, hitherto known only as a Test centre, has a stinker in the opener against Ireland?
"It doesn't help to chop and change and I don't have so much talent at my disposal that I can haul in someone else," Mallett said. "I've told Masi that if he doesn't have a good game, I'll try and work out with him what he did wrong."
Italy beat Scotland away and Wales at home in last year's Six Nations, and two wins is the standard Mallett has set. He also said he declined England's request to apply for the vacant coach's job after Andy Robinson was sacked in late 2006.
Last weekend, he watched Treviso beaten by London Irish. The Italian champions' XV included just three players born in Italy and – however ironically – too many Heidtmanns, Van Zyls and De Jagers for Mallett's liking.
"I knew that there were quite a few Italians playing offshore in England and France [one of them, the Gloucester lock Marco Bortolami, is out for a month with a fractured eye socket]," Mallett said, "but there are too many overseas players at Italian clubs. It doesn't reallyserve the national cause."
Mallett was born 51 years ago above the music room at Haileybury College, where his English father, Anthony, was a teacher and cricket coach. Six weeks later the family emi-grated to the then Rhodesia. He returned for three years at Oxford, where he won two rugby Blues (and famously hit three sixes in an over off Somerset's Ian Botham), then played one season for Rovigo in Italy, and a few more in France.
As a coach he won 27 of his 38 Tests with the Springboks, including the record-equalling streak of 17 wins between August 1997 and December 1998 which ended against England at Twickenham.
He lost that job in 2000 and headed back to France to take Stade Français to league titles in 2003 and 2004. Then it was back to Western Province. His son and daughter are at university in Cape Town – their father's original alma mater – and his wife is commuting to Italy every three weeks or so.
"I graduated in history, so it is wonderful to be in Rome," said Mallett. "The monuments are incredibly beautiful and though I was brought up an Anglican, I love the peace and beauty of the Catholic churches. The Italians are great ones for remembering good moments in their past and every emperor appeared to want to stick up a bigger statue than the last one."
He may not get his own statue, but Mallett and Italy may be a marriage made in St Peter's.Reuse content