Eternal City, eternal sunshine, eternal rugby. The rooftops of Rome might offer a wonderful vista as a working environment for Nick Mallett but the challenge remains inherent. In fact, greater than ever, in his view.
“This is the biggest professional challenge I have ever had in my working life” insists Italy’s coach. “This is a very visible role. You are exposed in this job. You are an international coach in Europe but you have little time to prepare your team. So you can only be judged as a coach after 3-6 months here. I only got the players together one week before our first match in the Six Nations, against Ireland in Dublin last February.
“What that means is you are incredibly dependent on the quality of competitions they play in and the coaching they get with their clubs or provinces. That was the big advantage Jake White had with the South African players. They were together so much as a squad and they were very well coached at provinces like the Sharks and Bulls. So the coaching, physical fitness and preparation was done for him.”
Rome on this gorgeous morning is simply stunning. The sun beats down, the mimosa trees are bursting into colour and the city looks resplendent. Visitors and locals stroll by the Spanish Steps and the Trevi Fountain. We sit, firstly, at Mallett’s favourite café across the street from his elegant apartment and later, at an open air restaurant at the top of the Spanish Steps and chew the cud…..on Rome, on life, on rugby.
Was he worried about the need to deliver from the Italian Federation, a rugby body that has hired and fired plenty of overseas coaches for the Italian national team in recent years, men such as New Zealanders Brad Johnstone and John Kirwan and Frenchman Pierre Berbizier?
“Well, they have told me what they want and I am happy to go down that route” says Mallett.
The debate in Italian rugby, as ever, is to what extent foreigners should be allowed to play in the national side. Italy has fielded New Zealanders and South Africans in their international team in recent years and Mallett told Italian President Carlo Dondi he could target ten young South African players, bring them over to clubs in the Italian First division and in three years time they would be qualified through residency to play for Italy.
“He told me that was not what he wanted. They don’t feel the foreign players here are head and shoulders above the local players they have. They want to go for Italian players and create very much an Italian flavour to this squad. It’s an interesting concept because under professionalism, the game is going towards picking the best players no matter where they come from. Look at England and Lesley Vainikola, the Tongan.
“From outside, I considered the right way for Italy was to develop three really talented sets of half-backs over the next three years, maybe from South Africa and Australia. But politically, that’s not a popular move here. That is why I have really made an effort to select Italian born players in my squads.
“Fly half has been an absolute bug bear for us. But positions 9,10 and also 5 are where they have a dearth of really top quality players.”
No. 5 is interesting. The South African born Quinton Geldenhuys, formerly of the Bulls, has been playing for Italian club Viadana for two years. Mallett calls him “a proper physical specimen” and he could be earmarked for a position in the Italian national side.
But this is Italy’s, and Mallett’s, dilemma. Without some foreign born quality players, Italy will struggle in the foreseeable future at this level. But they cannot afford to wait and fall further behind the other countries in the Six Nations.
Mallett’s contract is for 2 years with a further 2 year option. Although his family is not with him, they will visit at various times of the year and he will return to South Africa when possible. But then, Nick Mallett has led something of a nomad’s life. He studied at Oxford, then lived in London, coached a junior club in France for five years and then took Stade Francais of Paris to the French Championship title. Oxford, London, Paris, Cape Town, Rome……….the man appreciates the finer locations in life, that’s for sure.
“What better opportunity could rugby have given me than to learn so many different cultures” he asks ? “The fact is, once you are involved in rugby coaching, I think you are lucky in life to love something and get paid to do it. When you look at the benefits in terms of lifestyle and how much outside rugby it has given me and my family, I know I am blessed.
“There will be down sides and not being with your family all the time is the chief one. But my wife and children know I love them and I speak to them on the phone every day.”
And wasn’t he prepared early in his own life for this type of existence ? His father, who was to become Head at Bishops school in Cape Town, sent him to boarding school at St. Andrews, Grahamstown, when he was 5 years old. He was away nine months of each year and three times climbed the fence hoping to escape.
And what of Mallett’s own thoughts on South Africa and the youngsters coming through to play rugby at the highest levels? “There is a production line of players being turned out all the time from schools. Young black and coloured boys are going to the top Afrikaaner schools now and they will come through too.
“The whole transformation thing has been done and if they let society take its course they will reap the dividends for years to come.”
But perhaps it is the comparison that Mallett makes between the northern hemisphere’s Six Nations Championship and the Tri-Nations competition in the south that forms the most fascinating of his views. Technically, he says, the Six Nations is the equal of the Tri-Nations. Fitness levels, structures, defensive patterns….none differ greatly. But there is one huge difference between the two, he insists.
“The intensity of New Zealand v South Africa is not yet matched by a Test match in the Six Nations. I don’t think they put their bodies on the line with the same ferocity as a South African defending his turf. The Afrikaaner is very physical; he loves tackling and is very brave. It’s the same among the players of island origin in the New Zealand sides. They get huge pleasure out of a big hit.
“So for me, it’s the absolute intensity that is the difference. The southern hemisphere teams hit harder in the contact situations, with or without the ball. In terms of muscularity, speed and size the northern hemisphere teams are up there. It’s just the mental side of it that is different. You don’t see a Schalk Burger type player here with absolutely no fear. Schalk is like a threshing machine. Players here will make the tackle but in the southern hemisphere it is almost an intense hatred of the opposition.
“When they clear you out of a ruck in New Zealand or South Africa, they are doing it so hard to hurt you and saying in effect, ‘Don’t ever come here again’. Bakkies Botha’s cleaning out of England lock Ben Kay in the World Cup final was unbelievable. He hit him so hard in the ribs it was incredible he didn’t break four ribs. There is a lot more cerebral thought in northern hemisphere rugby.
“It is that kind of intensity I’m talking about. South Africa understood their skill levels weren’t as good as New Zealand’s in retaining possession. But their main weapon was to be as destructive as possible when the opposition had the ball. And I think that will always be the case. It stems from the differing cultures. There is more a sense of preservation among French, Italian and northern hemisphere teams.
“There seems to be a lack of thought going into contact in the southern hemisphere. They are just incredibly courageous.”
Nick Mallett is certainly making progress. Italy, faced with a tough Six Nations schedule this year, did OK and were competitive. They ended up with a narrow but encouraging win over Scotland. Then, in the off season, they went to Cape Town with a very much weakened side and lost to South Africa. Yet their final match of the season was a triumph, a victory over Argentina on South American soil.
Gradually, inexorably, Nick Mallett is strengthening Italian rugby.