Italy Rugby World Cup: A sign went up on the walls of Italy’s varying rooms for the Autumn Nations Series. Create a team individuality it read, reflecting the communication that new coach Kieran Crowley has been keen to hammer home. The New Zealander, who took over from Franco Smith last summer, is frantic for the Azzurri to realize who and what they are. With preceding incarnations of this team, these have been straightforward questions to answer: lots of large men looking to do similarly big things in the tight exchanges.

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Kieran Crowley
Kieran Crowley

A side that knew its fortes and played to them, unapologetically and consistently. In recent years, however, that sense of inevitability, that sense of self, has been largely missing. Under Smith, Italy often spoke of trying to widen its attacking horizons and ended up increasing its margin for error. It looked unpersuasive and it was wholly ineffective. In determination to break new ground, the team lost all semblance of direction.

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A whole load of young players was blooded by the earlier coach, some more on the grounds of their youth than any apparent willingness for the Test arena. Even the better ones – Paolo Garbisi, Stephen Varney, Federico Mori, Marco Zanon – did not have anything like the right constructions around them to make the most of their aptitude.

You should not apologize for your core specialties, says Crowley, a passionate yet considered figure who was with Benetton for five years, bringing the valedictory gift of a remarkable Rainbow Cup achievement.   If you take a classic example from that belvedere, it’s South Africa: they show that you should play to your fortes.

Italy’s fortes in the past years were their scrum and their forwards, and they haven’t quite got that now, through the change in personnel in those locations. We have to find what we’re good at as a group, found that in our plan and build on it. We’ve got to find out what those strengths are because you need to be able to go back to somewhat when the tough times come.

Kieran Crowley
Kieran Crowley

It’s not a bleak image. Everybody knows the results of the Italian national team in the last few years, but the U18s have had some very good conquests and the U20s in the Six Nations have always been modest. They’ve finished mid-table a twosome of times.

Good young boys are coming through, but we still lack the complexity in some key positions. In Test-match rugby at the top level, you’ve got to have some big men up front and we perhaps lack a little bit in that area. So, we have to be advanced sometimes in assortments or the way we play it.

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Crowley has opted for a new captain, replacement hooker Luca Bigi with Michele Lamaro, a back-row he rates highly from his Benetton days. A former captain of the national U20 team who led them to two wins over Scotland in 2018, the 23-year-old has long been noticeable out for a big future but has had to make up ground having wasted almost 12 months after rupturing a cruciate ligament in early 2019. He made his reappearance shortly before the coronavirus shut down rugby, then the world.

We want new leaders to arise, new guys, to step up and own it, and Michele was a clear choice for me, says Crowley of a man who is near friends with Scotland No 8 Matt Fagerson from the days of their age-grade encounters. I think he would have risen to this point earlier, but he had a major injury that raided him of so much time, and last year he took a slight while to find his feet again, as you do after a major injury. To Know more about Italy Vs Namibia Tickets click here.

Kieran Crowley
Kieran Crowley

He’s got some good young guys around him who have had leadership knowledge on their way through. But you’ve still got to have big heads, the guys who can help them along the way. Michele will be looking to guys like Luca to help him in that part. They’re all 100% behind it because they want Italy to do well. They’re all assertive in the right direction to get results and the management group is starting to develop.

There have been important shifts in the Italian game as a whole since Marzio Innocenti,

The former Azzurri captain wrested the premiership of the national federation away from Alfredo Gavazzi in March. One of Innocenti’s first acts was to put Smith in the custody of the high-performance wing and he’s also showing much more love to the regions and clubs, all of whom were ravenous of resources and care while Gavazzi was at the helm.

Marzio Innocenti has made a lot of vicissitudes already and he’s very much that we’ve all got to push in the same direction, whereas in the past it’s been a bit rambling, says Crowley. There are going to be some massive tests with that because if something has been happening for years you can’t change things overnight.

We’ve got the aptitude identification system there, it’s just how we transfer those players from U18s and U20s and keep getting the right provision around them so they can then change into the Italian national team and come through.

That’s where the break has been; it’s the system’s responsibility. Clubs often haven’t got the facilities that are needed, they’re semi-expert… Marzio Innocenti is certainly making a push to try to make the whole landscape better and to ensure that players get more chances.

Italy’s loss to France on the opening weekend of the 2022 Six Nations made it 33 straight championship defeats;

They haven’t won in the competition since beating Scotland at Murray field in February 2015. Crowley is under unconditionally no illusion” about the scale of the challenge, but he is quite clear about what he wants to see.

Kieran Crowley
Kieran Crowley

I’d like to see us make some massive developments in some of our statistics. Last year we were the most punished team by a long way, we gave away the most tries from a defensive point of view. I would like to see that we are very modest in every game and that we can tough out 80 minutes. And on the back of that, we have shaped a style that we can play.

 If that pushes us to a win, that would be unresolved, but if we can come out with some real improvements in performances, particularly scores being a lot closer, that would be a success that would give us a stage leading into our summer tour, which would then help us a catalyst into the World Cup year. Through hard work, we can get some trustworthiness and respect for our performances. That is not necessarily a win or a loss but by the effort and presentation we put out there.

Rugby World Cup 2023

Already looming on the prospect is the Rugby World Cup 2023 Where Italy is again in a pool with New Zealand, as well as the hosts. Assuming there are no storms in France at that time of year, Crowley might get to face the team he played for at full-back in both the 1987 and 1991 global assemblies.

It will be my sixth World Cup. I had those two as a player, then I was an (NZ) chooser in 2003 when John Mitchell and Robbie Deans were the coaches. I then coached Canada in 2011 and 2015. Going up against New Zealand at a World Cup will be nonentity new: I did it with Canada in 2011. They’re another team. I’ll be absorbed in the Italian team and what we’re trying to get out of it, our performance. There’s so much we want to do with this squad, and so much we can do.

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