Johnstone looks for iron men to lead Azzurri

Italy coach aims to overcome football mentality of players in bid to compete with top nations
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The Independent Online

The world is full of track-suited, clipboard-wielding coaches who, from the safety of the dug-out or the front row of the grandstand, demand selfless feats of lunatic bravery from the poor bloody infantry under their command.

Without a second thought, they call on their charges to soak up the big hits, to kill the ball for the sake of the nation, to risk life and limb for the flag. Brad Johnstone is very definitely not typical of the breed. No rugby strategist on the face of the earth is less likely to ask his players to go beyond the bounds of his own experience, to perform a task he would not have performed himself.

Consider this. Almost a quarter of a century ago, the then 25-year-old Johnstone left his builder's job in Auckland and embarked on the "Great Trek", the fifth All Black tour of South Africa. He was uncapped, the fourth of four props, but his form earned him a a front-row berth for the second Test in Bloemfontein. His direct opponent was one Johan Strauss, whose reputation as the "Iron Man of the Transvaal" suggested that he was not the sort to compose pretty little waltzes in his spare time.

During the game, Johnstone suffered a "rupture of the rib cage," as the tour chronicler, Terry McLean, diagnosed it in his book, Goodbye to Glory.

Knowing that his fellow specialist loose head, Kerry Tanner, was unfit, the new boy took everything Strauss could throw at him - there was plenty of it, make no mistake - and went the 80-minute distance to help his country square the series at 1-1 with two to play. Some debut, some guts.

His reward? An early flight home. On the strength of a less than authoritative medical report, he was packed off back to New Zealand with scarcely a word of thanks. Within days of returning, he turned out for the Auckland provincial side, which he proceeded to captain to the domestic championship. "The injury mended fast," said Johnstone last weekend. "Inside 10 days as I recall. But there was some politics flying around on that trip and although Lawrie Knight, our No 8 and a doctor, fought my corner, the management opted to send me back rather than one or two other props who were in a worse physical state. All that is a long way behind me, though. The past is the past."

And the present is here and now. Raw courage is still of the essence, even in this sanitised rugby age, and Johnstone readily admits that one of the big challenges he faces in his new job as the national coach of Italy is to persuade his men to "play through suffering", that "pain is only pain". He knows that unless he changes what he refers to as the soccer mindset of his players - no small matter in a country where one Baggio equals a hundred Troncons and a thousand Bergamascos - the Azzurri will never punch their weight and never stand an earthly against a side as accomplished as the England outfit they confront in Rome's Stadio Flaminio on Saturday.

"This country has grown up on a daily diet of six pages of soccer in every newspaper," he said. "In many respects, we are talking about a complete football culture. By comparison, rugby gets two inches in a faraway corner somewhere. Italians are used to seeing their sporting heroes lay down for 10 minutes when they've been fouled, then get up and run around as though nothing has happened. In some ways, the rugby guys do the same.

"It's a far cry from the All Black mentality, that's for sure. I've seen people back in New Zealand, or in Fiji when I was coaching there, suffer dislocated shoulders and carry on playing. Here, you get five doctors on the paddock for the slightest thing. If an Italian player does a rib cartilage, the medics will immediately say: 'That's his lot for two months.' Where I come from, a rugby doctor would have the player back on the field in a fortnight.

"I'm not trying to make All Blacks of these players, but they do have considerable ability. To maximise that ability, they need to change their mental approach. Let's put it this way: at the moment, I'm concentrating more on psychology than scrummaging technique. I need leaders, particularly up front where it really counts. I need someone with the authority to say 'Come on, follow me' and take the side with them. I had one of those in Massimo Giovanelli, but he's not around right now."

Giovanelli, the "Pirate of Parma", was and remains a rugby chip off the Johnstone block: fearless, passionate, uncompromising, well nigh indestructible. Except that he is now suffering from a detached retina, an injury that may well bring his 60-cap career to a close. If Giovanelli's presence gave the Azzurri the reassurance they needed to complete their famous Six Nations victory over Scotland last month, it was his absence that left them rudderless when the tide turned against them in Cardiff and Dublin. "In general, Italian players are not used to having to perform at a high level every fortnight," said Johnstone. "Giovanelli could do it, and we miss him."

After five years with Fiji, an association that reached its natural conclusion at the end of the World Cup, Johnstone was looking forward to a "long chill" in Auckland, watching the America's Cup yachting and re-assessing his coaching future over a fridge full of beers. "Every coaching job has its life-span, and it seemed the obvious time to give the Fiji thing away. We'd had a good World Cup, we'd gone home with our heads in the air and I knew the side was on the brink of something. But if I'd stayed on, I'd have ended up repeating myself. The players needed a new challenge, and so did I. After all, we'd come a long way together. When I first went to Suva, the union wouldn't even release their Sevens specialists for Test matches.

"I suppose I was half thinking of a position in New Zealand rugby, but the Super 12 jobs were tied up and, anyway, I'd been outside the box for a long time. To go back would have meant a big step down in income and status, and as a professional you go where the money is. So when the Italians called me, I was interested straight away. I'd spent some time with the L'Aquila club, so I kind of knew the score. I loved the country, I loved the culture and I loved the rugby people there, who I knew were just as crazy about the game as rugby people anywhere else.

"In terms of raw talent, there is no real comparison with Fiji. There are so many extraordinary players over there, but they have nothing. They come to matches on the backs of tractors. Given the opportunity to play regularly against New Zealand and Australia, all the island teams would adjust very quickly. The only reason they're not invited to play is that they bring no money to the table. From a sporting point of view, the way they are treated offends me deeply. From a practical point of view, it's the way professionalism is. The big dogs eat the little dogs.

"Italy is a different issue: they're in the Six Nations and there is some money in the game. While there is no real structure aimed at manufacturing international-class players, the victory over Scotland put us on the front pages for the first time in history, and I think there has been a subtle change in rugby's position here. After all, Italians respond to winners, just like everyone else."