Food, Art and Sport
Food, Art and Sport

How has Italy become stronger at rugby?

A few months after a disappointing World Cup, the Italian Rugby men's national team concluded its best Six Nations with a draw and two victories.

After a disappointing World Cup campaign, the Italian Rugby men’s national team has shown remarkable resilience and improvement in the recent Six Nations tournament, culminating in a draw and two victories. This newfound success begs the question: How has Italy elevated its game and become a stronger force in international rugby?

One of the critical factors behind Italy’s resurgence lies in its revamped coaching staff and strategic approach. Following the disappointment of the World Cup, the Italian Rugby Federation made significant changes, bringing in seasoned coaches with a wealth of experience and fresh perspectives. Under the guidance of this new coaching team, the Italian squad has undergone rigorous training regimes and tactical adjustments aimed at enhancing their performance on the field.

Furthermore, Italy’s success can be attributed to the emergence of young talent and the continued development of existing players. A new generation of Italian rugby stars has risen to prominence, injecting energy and enthusiasm into the national team. These young players, alongside seasoned veterans, have formed a cohesive unit that exhibits a potent blend of skill, determination, and resilience.

Additionally, Italy’s improved performances can be linked to their enhanced focus on physical conditioning and mental fortitude. The players have demonstrated remarkable fitness levels and mental toughness, enabling them to endure the rigors of elite-level rugby and deliver standout performances when it matters most.

Strategic partnerships and collaborations have also played a crucial role in Italy’s rugby resurgence. The Italian Rugby Federation has forged alliances with top clubs and leagues, providing players with access to high-quality facilities, coaching, and competition. These partnerships have created a conducive environment for player development and have contributed to Italy’s growing stature in the rugby world.

Italy has participated in the Six Nations, the annual tournament played by the six strongest European national teams, since 2000, thanks to the intense activity of the Italian Federation of Rugby and as a consequence of a series of excellent results obtained in the nineties. But Italy has always been far from the other five teams: Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales and France. The initial emphasis and the consequent interest of many spectators who were otherwise not very passionate about rugby had waned in recent years amid many bad defeats, some honourable defeats and a few meagre victories. The initial excitement was followed by a certain disaffection on the part of the public, a sort of general resignation towards an often inevitable “analysis of defeat”.

This year, things have changed. Italy first lost against England by just 3 points (27-24, one of those honorable defeats) and after a bad defeat (36 to 0 against Ireland) they drew an excellent match away to France ( 13-13, also hitting a post at the last second). Then they won 31-29 at home against Scotland (after a so-so first half, but thanks to a second half that was perhaps their best since playing the Six Nations) and finally won 24-21 away against Scotland Wales (after leading 18-0).

Before Italy-Scotland, Italy had not won a Six Nations match at home for eleven years: for 26 matches, the fans had gone to watch them play at home and lost. Italy had not won two Six Nations matches in a row since 2007, and it had never happened that Italy played three consecutive matches without losing even one.

It lies a little in the numbers but a lot in the facts: Italy had never been so strong at rugby, a sport where the strongest almost always wins. Thanks to the new coach – the Argentine Gonzalo Quesada, who gave her solidity – and to the previous one, the former All-Black (the New Zealand rugby national team) Kieran Crowley, who gave her unscrupulousness. And it is thanks to a stubborn movement that has put its national team at the centre, has found some solid players and a good number of “national team” players to choose from.

Italy’s history in the Six Nations started very well, with a home victory against Scotland. However, years of penultimate and even more often last places followed. In most of their Six Nations, Italy has not won a single match and only twice, in 2007 and 2013, have they won two out of five. If an initial period of adaptation to the Six Nations level was understandable, the problem had become that in recent years, there seemed to be a lack of evolution, and indeed, perhaps there had been an involution because, between 2016 and 2021, Italy did not win not even a single match of the tournament. By the end of 2023, Italy had played 120 Six Nations matches, with just 13 victories.

In between, there have been six World Cups in which Italy has always exited the groups, always beaten by the strongest teams in the Northern Hemisphere (the ones it plays against in the Six Nations) or by the strongest ones in the Southern Hemisphere (Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Argentina, the teams that meet each other every year in the Rugby Championship tournament). In particular, in the last World Cup, played in France in 2023, Italy won well against Uruguay and Namibia but lost badly against New Zealand and France: two games in which they conceded a total of 156 points, scoring only 24; two matches with three tries scored, and 22 tries conceded.

Since being in the Six Nations, Italy has had nine foreign coaches: three New Zealanders, two French, two South Africans, an Irishman and an Argentinian. Just as in football, it happens that Italian coaches go to coach less foreign solid national teams, even in rugby, a team that aims to grow like Italy has for all these years chosen foreign coaches with significant international experience, who come from countries with more fabulous tradition rugby compared to Italy.

Over the last two decades, the objective has been to grow, build multi-year cycles and recover the gap from the other Six Nations teams. Doing so meant seeking or shaping a particular identity for the team, that is, finding a more or less aggressive or wait-and-see, unscrupulous or cautious, offensive or defensive way of playing rugby, but also understanding how certain players could be functional to a particular type of game, all while in the meantime rugby was changing and evolving all around (in recent years towards a very tactical and defensive game).

Before Quesada, Crowley had been Italy’s coach for two Six Nations and the 2023 World Cup. Under Crowley, Italy only won one Six Nations match. Still, they were an aggressive and evil team in how they faced opponents stronger to surprise them with the unpredictability of his game. Then he lost (honourable defeats), but in many cases, he lost by a little and, after trying to win by attacking, with a game that showed great confidence in his abilities.

We saw a radical change of mentality regarding the interpretation of the offensive game by the team with a rhythmic, lively, unpredictable progression» and a game of rugby always ambitious, in every area of ​​the pitch, with the boys sometimes risking the play in hand even from the defensive 22-meter line. All this was done by a national team weaker than the others, which for years had been set up as a throw-in team, incapable of playing the game and built to destroy the opponent’s play. In those years, among other things, Ange Capuozzo, the imaginative Italian rugby player and probably one of the most extraordinary Italian talents of recent years, made his name in the national team.

Arriving at the end of 2023 after heavy defeats in the World Cup, Quesada found himself the coach of a fun but losing team, young and with a certain self-awareness, but also relatively fragile. And he immediately made it clear that he wanted to rebalance the team and focus on defence; keep what you learned with Crowley as one game possibility among many, not as a dogmatic approach to every game.

In his first interview as Italy’s coach, Quesada spoke of the need to “strengthen the foundations and improve the fundamentals”. «I like the attacking game set up by Crowley,» said Quesada. ” Maybe we will only use it in the areas of the pitch that allow it for now.»

Interviewed at the beginning of the year, Quesada made a football metaphor: «I like Guardiola, but I also like Simeone’s football, someone who wants to compete. However, Italy cannot be Atletico Madrid, and it does not have the muscles of England. Our strength must be speed and the group.” If Guardiola in football is a coach known for his teams’ control over the game and matches, Simeone is known on the contrary for a combative and much more defensive, but still effective, style.

Often presented as a coach who is very attentive to details and capable of combining the emotional with the strategic, Quesada has tried to make Italy more solid, versatile, and disciplined, as well as more aligned with the direction of international rugby.

Except for the defeat against Ireland, Italy was solid throughout the Six Nations, pragmatic in managing matches, concrete in taking points (with tries but also with free kicks), compact in defence, confident in tackling and above all, very disciplined: rugby has many rules, and it is easy, especially against more vigorous opponents, to make many fouls, which often become points conceded. Discipline allows you to avoid it.

And then there are the players. Here, even before Quesada, the credit goes to the Federation (chaired by Marzio Innocenti since 2021, after Alfredo Gavazzi had been president since 2012) and, obviously, to the players themselves for what they did on the field.

Italy is an averagely young team, with some very talented players who, in their roles, are or can become among the best in the world and who, although young, have already played in a World Cup and some Six Nations matches. This is the case of Capuozzo, scrumhalf Martin Page-Relo and flyhalf Paolo Garbisi. The group also includes experienced players, such as the three-quarter Ignacio Brex (one of the best players in the entire Six Nations) and young debutants, such as Ross Vincent or Louis Lynagh, whose mother is from Treviso and whose father is the former Australian rugby player Michael Lynagh. Added to this is that for a few years now, Italy’s Under 20s have been doing better and better in their Six Nations: last year, they came third, and this year, they came fourth.

Moreover, the increased exposure to international competition has helped Italy raise its game to new heights. Participation in prestigious tournaments like the Six Nations has provided invaluable learning opportunities for the Italian squad, allowing them to test their skills against the best teams in the world and refine their tactics accordingly.

Despite so much optimism, however, there remain quite a few unknowns. The Italian national rugby team continues to depend heavily on players with Italian origins who grew up abroad (and therefore did not “grow up” thanks to the Italian rugby system) and mainly on players from Benetton Treviso, the strongest club team in Italy, who however does not play in the Italian championship. Furthermore, despite an audience capable of filling the Olympic stadium in Rome and one of the wealthiest sports federations in Italy (thanks to the Six Nations), Italian rugby has few practitioners (around 70 thousand): the pool to find new players is relatively small.

Returning to the Six Nations, there are reasons to be optimistic—Italy, for example, is first in the ranking of tackles made, and no one has tackled as many as their captain Michele Lamaro—but there are also reasons not to be: Italy is last for tries scored and total points, as well as meters run with the ball in hand and total passes during the 2024 Six Nations, which this year, like last year, was won by Ireland.

Looking ahead, Italy’s challenge will be to build upon its recent successes and sustain its upward trajectory in international rugby. This will require continued investment in grassroots development, talent identification, coaching infrastructure, and players’ and staff’s relentless commitment to excellence.

Italy’s resurgence in rugby is a testament to the collective efforts of players, coaches, administrators, and stakeholders within the Italian rugby community. Through strategic planning, investment in talent development, and a relentless pursuit of improvement, Italy has emerged as a more vital and more competitive force in rugby, signalling promising times ahead for the Azzurri.