Brian Ashton: Italian rugby needs to find its soul

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The Independent Online

When you reach my age – let's say I'm past my three score years and leave it at that – you don't expect too many new experiences to come your way, but I achieved a first in Rome, one of my favourite cities, last weekend.

Never before had I watched England play live away from home without being directly involved in the coaching set-up, and to find myself doing so at Stadio Flaminio, a very old haunt of mine, was quite an irony.

Encouraged by my good friend Dick Greenwood, the England back-row forward, I travelled to Italy for a spell of club rugby in the mid-1970s, cutting my coaching teeth there with the help of two of the game's great visionaries, Carwyn James and Pierre Villepreux, both of whom were living and working in the country. During my first season, Stadio Flaminio was my home ground. There wasn't quite so much of a crowd then as there was on Sunday: indeed, I can remember a very bored, four-year-old Will Greenwood making a racket in the empty stands on match days while I was playing scrum-half alongside his dad.

It's true to say that travelling as a spectator is somewhat different to travelling as a member of the England party. There was a long delay at the airport, so instead of arriving in Rome at a reasonable hour to find a bottle of Amarone and a bowl of fettuccine awaiting me, I touched down late and found myself running straight into Mark Regan, until quite recently the England hooker, in an Irish bar. Mark was in characteristically boisterous mood and decided I was in urgent need of a pint of Guinness and a plate of chips. Inevitably, he ate most of the chips himself. Still, I would never accuse him of not having his heart in the right place.

The match was hardly electrifying – its shortcomings have been well documented – but the things I saw from my seat high up in the gods set me thinking about Italian rugby and its trials and tribulations in recent years. When I was playing and coaching there between 1976 and 1980, the game was in rude health; indeed, the national team ran something approaching a full-strength All Blacks side pretty close in Padova in 1978. Perhaps it wasn't so surprising, given the incisive input of Carwyn and Pierre.

A little later, players of the calibre of David Campese and Michael Lynagh took to playing there, and like the two coaches, they immersed themselves in the Italian mentality and in its culture. None of these people said: "Right, this is how we do it in Wales, or France, or Australia." They recognised the vibrant mix of uncompromising toughness, passion and élan at the heart of Italian rugby – a mix defined by the brilliant Francescato brothers, three of whom were playing for the national team at the time – and embraced it.

Sadly, this spirit has been lost: 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. How can this be achieved, given the way the sport is currently structured, both competitively and financially? I have no easy answers. All I know is that last weekend, I ran into old team-mates from 30-odd years ago who, like tens of thousands of other deeply passionate Azzurri supporters, were unhappy with what they'd seen. It is one thing to lose to England by five points. It is quite another for a rugby nation to lose the best of itself.

Lapses for which you might kick yourself

Last week, I talked about the wrong-headedness of the "no 'I' in teams" theory of coaching, arguing that the way a game of rugby develops is always dictated by individual decision-making. There were two classic examples of this in last weekend's Six Nations matches: the extraordinary incident involving the Ireland hooker Jerry Flannery, which seemed to lift an already highly motivated and committed French team to a new level, and Mike Blair's bizarre restart at the end of the Wales-Scotland game.

I've never seen anything like Flannery's huge swipe at Alexis Palisson, the French wing – not even in a playground, let alone on a rugby field – and he was fortunate to escape with a six-week ban. As for Blair's failure to end the match at the Millennium Stadium by drop-kicking the ball out of play, thereby ensuring that his side would leave Cardiff with a draw... if I'm honest, I cannot even begin to understand his thinking.

Scotland were down to 13 men and exhausted, mentally as much as physically after seeing things turn horribly against them in the last 10 minutes. Blair may not be a regular kicker, or even an occasional one, but he is a scrum-half and, in modern rugby, scrum-halves are frequently the ones most involved in running down the clock to their team's advantage. His decision to kick the ball straight, and rather short, which allowed the Welsh to launch a last attack, was odd to say the least.

One other thought occurs to me: if Blair had kicked the ball as hard as Flannery kicked the unfortunate Palisson, it would have ended up in the umpteenth row of the stand irrespective of the direction, and Scotland would have returned home with something to show for their efforts!