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This weekend sees both Leinster & Ireland in action, against Zebre and Italy respectively, so for the latest in our “Opposition view” series I was lucky enough to be able to talk to Italian rugby super fan Andrea Tronchin, who is curator of the Italy twitter account for RugbyUnited as well as those for both Benetton and Zebre. I asked him how the game has grown in Italy since they joined the Six Nations, what upcoming players we should look out for from Zebre, and how the national team will be approaching Saturday’s big match at the Aviva Stadium. He kept apologising for his English, though I thought he was fine, definitely a hell of a lot better than my Italian that’s for sure. But just in case, you’ll find below his answers - for my part I thought he gave some really good insight to what the game is like over there.
Q : Italy joined the Six Nations in 2000. How has the game grown in the country since then?
A : Rugby in Italy existed since 1910 run by the FIR. You are right when you say “growing” because it has been growing thanks to involvement in the major tournaments like Champions Cup and the Pro 14. Italy has had bad results in the Six Nations but our best placement was 4th in 2007 and 2013 it’s not the best but remember Scotland hasn’t won the title either since it became the Six Nations. It’s not exactly a level playing field.
Let’s talk about budget - Italy has about one fifth of the amount of the RFU and does not receive much back from the Six Nations. So I am always asked “Why does Italy still play in the Six Nations?” Well it is organised by the participating nations, not World Rugby and the other 5 are interested to have Italy in it because cities like Rome, Florence and Venice are such attractive destinations, and also Italian rugby fans are very passionate.
We also had two clubs joining the Celtic League in 2011 when it became the Pro 12. The clubs did not start well but as a Benetton supporter myself, my favourite season was 2018/19 when we reached the playoffs and played Munster at Thomond Park. In front of 10,000 supporters and with Nigel Owens as the ref, we only lost 13-15 and that was when we as fans had a new state of mind, realised “we can do it”. I still get goosebumps today talking about it! The match is still available on YouTube, I suggest you watch it again if you have time. When a small team gets a good result it helps increase the fan base, even internationally! We have supporters in England and Ireland now.
Q : Now to Leinster v Zebre. I’ve looked at their squad and I see they have a couple of ex-Leinster players like Ian Nagle and Mick Kearney. What other key players would they have in their squad when the internationals are away?
A : First, let me explain that in Italy, we have Benetton and Zebre but behind them there are a host of smaller teams and they all say the same thing - that Leinster are like the All Blacks of the northern hemisphere, with a huge squad of 50 or 60 all of which can play.
And Zebre, thanks to all the work that Michael Bradley has done as coach since 2017, can now look in the face of Leinster with no fear at all. He has prepared his players to reach their full potential and in 2020 they have a squad which is capable of giving Leinster a real challenge. I can tell you about some of the players in the background at Zebre who are ready to break through.
Federico Mori - outside centre, 20, Ricardo Brugnara - loosehead prop, 26. Christian Stoian - lock, 20. Allesandro Fusco - scrum half, 20, Jacobo Trulla - full back, 20.
Watch out for Trulla in particular on Friday if he plays because he shows a lot of promise.
Those five have all had excellent seasons with their clubs and thus are ready to move up into the Zebre team.
Q : And what’s the relationship like between the pro clubs and those from the national Top 12 competition?
A : Yes, the relationship is very good, almost like a mother to a child. Both Zebre and Benetton are getting the “permit players” they train with the pro teams and the connection between the squads is very strong.
Just one last thing about Zebre, just be aware that they have a lot of big players so expect a lot of physicality and hunger.
Q : Now we turn our attention to the Six Nations. Ireland can win the title with two maximum-point wins, what are you expecting from the Italians to try and stop us on Saturday?
A : Saturday is the day because I love the Six Nations - for me it is the best tournament ever. Watching the match is not enough, you enjoy the party afterwards as well, but unfortunately not this year. We have to be patient as these matches will have no supporters. Smith’s boys will be preparing for Ireland but also thinking about the visit of England the following week.
The Italians are well known for its strong scrum, this came mostly from Zebre. Our assistant coach Allesandro Troncon said at the announcement of our squad : “the goal is to be competitive”. We have to create an identity because this has been missing. Italy are building step by step, but in the meantime we are also trying to bring home good results. Once that squad is named, head coach Franco Smith cannot add players as he is a “technical coach”. This squad shows the young players we are bringing through.
I’m expecting Italy to show a new style of play against Ireland.
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