IItalian rugby is surrounded by wolves. Not the nurturing kind, like the one who raised Rome’s mythological founders, Romulus and Remus, but sharp-toothed blood drinkers in the guise of critical journalists and fans who have long since lost patience with the from Azzurri meager contribution to Europe’s premier rugby union competition.
The stats back up their screams to cut the straggler out of the peloton. Italy confirmed their inclusion in the Six Nations by beating Scotland 34-20 in their first outing in 2000, but won just 11 of their next 96 matches and in 21 seasons finished last 16 times . They’ve been on a 33-game losing streak since 2015 and last year broke records for most runs conceded (239) and tries conceded (34), finishing with the worst points difference on record by -184. They have never beaten England.
All signs point to a regression. And although the clamor to include Georgia has died down, there is growing momentum behind a bid to make room for South Africa. Facing the wall of gnashing teeth stands a man who understands that time is against him. “We know we have to start doing well,” said Kieran Crowley, a World Cup winner with New Zealand in 1987, who took charge of Italy last May. “I am not against promotion-relegation. It could be a good thing. It is a decision for the boards of directors. What I will say is that we can silence that conversation with our own performances.
After serving as All Blacks manager and then Under-19 coach, Crowley was appointed Canada coach in 2008, remaining in the role for eight years. He then signed with Benetton, where he led the Treviso franchise to a first-ever Pro14 quarter-final, losing by two points to Munster in 2019. Last year he broke ground by winning the Rainbow Cup, a tournament admittedly watered down but the first international silverware raised by an Italian club.
Can Crowley’s minor success at Benetton help break the cycle of defeats with the national team? “Sometimes it feels like it’s never going to end,” admits Sebastian Negri, the 27-year-old loose striker who was part of Crowley’s Benetton squad. “We take it personally. But few of us know what it means to win something. This can only have a positive impact. »
In team meetings, Crowley emphasized two words: respect and credibility. He feels that too few players have respected the shirt and this has led to a weakening of Italy’s credibility as a top-flight nation. “There are only two professional franchises in Italy,” Crowley offers as the cause of this complacency. “If you play for Benetton or Zebre, chances are you will get the call. The players didn’t have to fight like they have to in France or England.
To remedy this, Crowley encourages his players to seek employment overseas. But he also got in touch with three England-based players: Italian-born Harlequins winger Louis Lynagh, Wasps winger Paolo Odogwu, who has Italian parents, and Saracens’ Alex Lozowski, who played for the last time for England in 2018 but could take advantage of new World Rugby eligibility laws through his Italian grandmother.
“I will work with any player who is available and good enough,” Crowley said. But change is slow. Of his squad of 33 players, only six play outside Italy – four in France and two in England. One of them is 20-year-old Gloucester scrum-half Stephen Varney. Born in Wales to an Italian mother, he has roots in Cesena and Parma, and his great-grandfather served in the Italian army in North Africa during World War II before being captured and placed in a prison camp in West Wales.
“It’s in the blood,” Varney said in a Welsh accent. “We are enthusiasts. We are aware of what others say. Kieran called us and to be honest we needed it. We want to prove that we belong. We all want to be the generation that changed things. »
With an average age of 23, Italy are the youngest team in the competition. Two of them are teenagers, including winger Tommaso Menoncello, who scored against France on his debut. Several have graduated from impressive youth groups that now regularly beat the other five nations.
Paolo Garbisi is a star. The 21-year-old half-butterfly helped Montpellier move into second place in the French Top 14 standings, occasionally pushing Handré Pollard inside the centre. Italy captain Michele Lamaro will turn 24 in June, leading a group untainted by what has come before.
There are downsides to being young, of course. In total, there are just 440 Test caps in the squad, 186 less than Wales, who have seven established players through injury. And while Crowley stresses the need for patience, he recognizes the urgency of his situation. “We have to get rid of the monkey, but we’re up against five of the top eight teams in the world with an inexperienced squad,” he said. “It’s a chicken and egg story with results. We showed that we can play well in the patches. We just have to do it on the 80 minutes.
Italy kept New Zealand scoreless for nearly half an hour in November before delivering four tries in the final quarter. They led France twice in the first half last week but faded in the second, losing 37-10. Even an improved performance probably won’t be enough against Eddie Jones and his injured England on Sunday. The wolves will continue to howl. Only a victory will make them disappear.