Tim Glover: How Italy became Europe's fall guys
Desperate state of domestic game skews the pool stage - and it could have been avoided
Sunday 17 December 2006
The Heineken Cup has a mission statement: "To realise the potential of European club rugby by pushing back boundaries, connecting stakeholders and creating matches of unique drama."
Well, yes and no. The heavyweights in the tournament know they have a chance of becoming champions of Europe; then there are the Italians.
They are so far off the pace the Heineken has been seriously diluted. Benetton Treviso qualified as champions of Italy's "Super 10", Calvisano as runners- up, and Overmach Parma gained the 24th and last place by defeating the Newport-Gwent Dragons in a play-off. So far so good. However, once they were thrown into three very competitive pools it quickly became clear they were out of their depth, so much so that the balance of the competition has been undermined.
Teams drawn in Pools One, Three and Six would have been rubbing their hands at the prospect of picking up easy points, home and away, against the three Italian clubs. It is like playing the joker. They are so clearly the weakest link that even by the halfway stage of the pool proceedings the Italian trio had nothing more to play for than damage limitation. The quarter-finalists will be decided in January when the six group winners will be joined by the two best runners-up, and with mathematical factors such as the number of tries scored and aggregate points difference coming into play, everybody looks to fill their boots against the Italians.
The colours of Benetton? Painted exclusively red, judging by the points for and against columns. Overmach Parma? Horribly overmatched. As for Calvisano, they have just been fined €5,000 (£3,350) for not distributing accurate team information, which sounds like a sick joke. Need a vital win on the road or a potentially crucial bonus point? Look no further.
Yet only last week European Rugby Cup, who run the tournament, were boasting of a new website in which "Italian rugby fans can relive every match in the 12 seasons of Europe's premier club tournament". What on earth for? "The profile of the game in Italy is growing," declared Jean-Pierre Lux, the chairman of ERC. "It is an important market and has played a key part since the launch of the Heineken Cup in 1995."
Craig Green tells a very different story. "It's a pretty sad state of affairs all round," he said. "Whenever we have taken one step forward we have managed to take two or three in reverse. I'm not surprised by what's been happening in the Heineken. We need drastic changes and quickly, and there's little sign of that."
Green, a former All Black, is the coach of Treviso, traditionally the strongest of Italy's clubs, who once employed Carwyn James and Michael Lynagh. They have had some notable victories in Europe - over Bath, Wasps, Harlequins and Newcastle - but last season their record in the Heineken was played six, lost six, and yesterday they lost 71-5 at home to Wasps. Two seasons ago they came close to becoming the first Italian side to reach the knockout stages.
"Treviso were one of four Italian clubs who were due to join the Celtic League, and it would have been a big stepping stone," Green explained. "Instead the other clubs in Italy objected, we were outvoted and the whole thing fell through. Leading players had signed contracts on the understanding they'd be playing against the top Irish, Welsh and Scottish sides, and when that didn't happen they walked away." As will Green when his contract expires at the end of the season.
"The country lost most of their best players to England and France. The message it sends to young players who want to get ahead is to leave. The Italian Federation didn't expect such an exodus, but should have pushed for the Celtic League move. Some clubs would have suffered, but the same happened in Wales. We're also restricted by quotas which stipulate that 12 home-bred Italians have to be in each team, but that can exclude players with Italian passports. You can't plan ahead because the federation change the rules every year.
"Ironically, I believe the national side will do well in the Six Nations. That's because Italy will be comprised of players competing at a higher level overseas. Some of them have never played club rugby in Italy and never will." Diego Dominguez scored 645 points in Europe - 64 for Milan and then 581 for Stade Français.
In the inaugural World Cup in 1987 Green was on the left wing for the All Blacks and John Kirwan on the right, and in winning the tournament they hammered a game but outclassed Italy. Green spent the next four years playing for Treviso, and his love affair with Italy continued when he turned to coaching. He had three years at Calvisano and is in his fifth and final year as coach of Treviso. Kirwan had a spell as coach of Italy but had his contract terminated when he fell out with the federation over the Celtic League fiasco.
"It will be hard to leave," Green said, "but I've become disillusioned. Treviso have been fine and the players have given their all, but when you're up against Wasps and Castres it's not enough. We used to have crowds of 7,000 but now we're lucky to get 2,000. If we'd gone into the Celtic League we could have had four strong sides. Sponsors were interested and so was TV. Now we can only dream about it."
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