Evolution vs. revolution — small steps for Italy

Italy’s Six Nations campaign isn’t as results-focused as it has been previously — but it’s certainly a key performance indicator on how they are tracking towards the 2019 World Cup.

The Azzurri have their sights firmly set on a quarterfinal berth at the next global gathering, and there’s still more to be seen from Conor O’Shea’s influence. Italian fans shouldn’t panic if the win column looks bare in the Championship.

O’Shea has one target with Italy: the knockout stage in Japan. That’s where all his previous colleagues failed miserably.

But there’s a key difference between O’Shea’s environment and those of his predecessors. The new Italian Rugby Federation approach to high-level rugby under FIR [Italian Rugby Federation] President Alfredo Gavazzi.

Jacques Brunel was contracted by former Italian supremo Giancarlo Dondi with his tenure starting at the end of 2011. One year later the FIR election signalled the end of Dondi’s reign and the start of the Gavazzi era. So the former Rugby Calvisano supremo had his first four-year stint as FIR number-one, with a pre-signed coach.

O’Shea — the former Harlequins boss — was Gavazzi’s first appointment since he was elected and it marked a pivotal change in Italian approach to high-level rugby.

He joined with assistant Mike Catt and was later granted the support of former Saracens chief Brendan Venter who took charge of the side’s defence.

Brendan Venter will act as Conor O’Shea defence guru through to the 2019 Rugby World Cup. (Photo by Matteo Ciambelli/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The Gavazzi Italian rugby revolution was far more than one appointment. O’Shea’s started working at various levels on Italian rugby — he is monitoring the youngsters growing into the new expanded National Academies System and is cooperating directly with Benetton Treviso and Zebre staff. No Italian coach has ever had so much freedom to operate.

But there’s more. O’Shea was hired at the same time as another Irishman — the Irish Rugby Football Union’s head of technical direction Stephen Aboud — whose role is to coordinate and overlook the growth of the next generation.

Aboud’s knowledge and experience of more than two decades in Irish rugby brought an unprecedented injection of know-how into a relatively young Union. It’s at the early stages of a deep and radical revolution.

So with one eye on 2019 and the other on the here and now, it will be fascinating to see how O’Shea balances evolution and revolution.

It is O’Shea’s first Six Nations and my personal experience leads me to think that the next five Test matches will be crucial in identifying the bulk of the squad that will work under him during the next three years. Talent is required in modern professional rugby but attitude is essential.

The Irishman is building his core group of players. He toured the Americas last summer and then played on Italian soil in November. He got mixed messages from those six games but he is sitting on a 50 percent record — three wins and three defeats — and that alone marks a huge improvement from the past.

Now he will test his players’ behaviour in one of the most competitive tournaments in sport. From there he will introduce youngsters who will eventually emerge in the Junior Championship and Guinness PRO12 to make the final cut — that is why results in this Six Nations is not the most important for an indication of where Italy actually are.

Photo by Matteo Ciambelli/NurPhoto via Getty Images

On-field, we should expect an even more pragmatic Italy than the one seen three months ago. A team that will meticulously stick to its game plan, from the exit-strategies to tactical kicking. Married with that will be a team that relies on its scrummaging, driving maul power to crunch meters and a team that will work to keep the tackle-effectiveness percentage above the 90% mark while lowering its unforced errors count in every game. Those will be the standards that we should expect during the next two months.

Execution of the game plan will be key as and this is precisely why I would be pretty upset if we aren’t admiring a rise in accuracy everywhere around the pitch.

O’Shea will keep on developing his style but experience makes him aware that growth will be slower without encouraging results. That defeat against Tonga in November still hurts as the Azzurri painfully learned in November how small the difference is between a win and a loss at top flight rugby.

Their target will be to erase last year’s dismal Six Nations from their minds but the clean break with the new coach has already consigned that to a previous chapter. It was dismal: five losses, only eight tries scored, an average of almost 45 points leaked per game, a 20-points defeat to Scotland at home and another wooden spoon for the records. Progress is the target.

The schedule will be pretty favourable. Italy will play three times in Rome and, exactly like 2003, they start by hosting Wales and Ireland.

Rounds three and four — away against England and at home versus France — are crucial and then there is the chance to get revenge against Scotland at Murrayfield.

This will be a campaign focused on ever-improving accuracy and a developing game-plan. O’Shea will dream of five wins, of course, but marked improvements across the board should lay firm foundations for their main aim of reaching the World Cup knockout stage come 2019.

Source Article from http://www.espn.co.uk/rugby/story/_/id/18583474/results-secondary-italy-aim-improvement-oshea
Evolution vs. revolution — small steps for Italy
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