How do you solve a problem like Italian Rugby?



If you have even a passing interest in rugby, then during the fallout from the Six Nations you will have heard mention of promotion and relegation. After Italy finished bottom of the pile by one of the most comprehensive margins in memory, their position in the Six Nations is looking more precarious than ever. The promotion/relegation debate has reached a crescendo.

Of course the irony is that the only people who are staunchly ignoring this talk, are the ones that matter: the Six Nations organisers. Georgia is widely regarded as the side that should be given a chance to replace Italy in the Six Nations, or at least have a chance at joining it, but a member of the Georgian Rugby Union recently confirmed that they had heard not even a peep from the organisers about the possibility of opening up this closed shop.

Bernard Lapasset, with the exquisite timing that only a veteran politician possesses, has thrown his hat in the relegation ring, just as he leaves his post as chairman of World Rugby – a good soundbite, but leave the details to someone else, eh Bernard?

It’s definitely nothing to do with him moving to lead Paris’ bid for the 2024 Olympic Games, and hoping to curry favour with the likes of Georgia and Romania for when the voting process begins. Definitely not.

But we digress. The thing is, the problems in Italian rugby run deeper than the national side. None of their teams are competitive at the moment, in any of the competitions they are in.

Consider this stat: since the ascension of Zebre and Treviso into the PRO12 in 2010, they have finished outside the bottom three just once, Treviso’s anomalous 2012/2013 campaign in which they came seventh. In that same season, as if to even things out, Zebre’s record read played 22, lost 22.

Recently, Zebre have failed to score a single point (that’s points in a match, not in the league) in their last three PRO12 matches. The combined scoreline against Ulster, Leinster and Edinburgh read 0-108.

And yet there is every chance that next season, Zebre will compete in the Champions Cup. They are currently 11th in the table, three points ahead of bottom-dwellers Treviso. Whichever of them finishes above the other will be guaranteed a spot at the expense of a team that finishes higher and, let’s be honest, would add much more value to the competition.

Since 1997/1998 (when six-game pool stages arrived), 11/19 top seeds in the knockout stages have had an Italian team in their pool. It is 11 years since an Italian side won more than one game in their European pool, and in five of those seasons, Italian sides finished winless in the tournament. Being brutally honest, they are little more than whipping boys.

Would there not be much more value in them having a stint in the Challenge Cup, a competition in which they would find themselves much more competitive? Would that not be much more valuable in terms of building confidence within the teams, by giving them more winnable – or at the very least competitive – games?

Alarmingly, the problem runs even deeper. Italy have more registered rugby players than Scotland and Wales, and some 25,000 more than Argentina. At the last count in 2011, there were 784 rugby clubs in Italy – more than Australia and New Zealand have each, and some three times the number in Wales. The player pool is there, so what exactly is going wrong?

A fascinating article in The Economist recently put forward the theory that the country’s young players weren’t skilful enough; that children were being brought up with size and power targets to hit, rather than focussing on skills.

This, though, is rhetoric that we hear in most countries other than New Zealand, and is largely held up as the reason why the All Blacks consistently produce so many more immensely skilful players than other countries. It is not a problem that is specific to Italy.

While the Six Nations remains a closed shop, Italy will have a place at European Rugby’s top table, when frankly, the evidence would suggest that it doesn’t deserve one.

Strong Italian sides – both at a national and domestic level – would be hugely beneficial to everyone, but under the current set-up, where their club sides are routinely hammered in Europe and their national team struggles to escape the battle for the Six Nations wooden spoon, how is anything going to get better?

Whether a side like Georgia would necessarily do any better in the Six Nations is beside the point this article is making, but unless Italian rugby sorts out the mess it finds itself in, the clamour for opening the Six Nations’ borders will only get louder. It is fair to say that Conor O’Shea has a rather tough job on his hands.

By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43

Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images

20 thoughts on “How do you solve a problem like Italian Rugby?

  1. A good read.

    It’s tough to talk about a promotion / relegation system simply because all that would happen is you’d end up cycling through whipping boys… Italy go out, Georgia come in and get drubbed in every game, then they go out, the Italians get drubbed, as they’re rusty from playing at that level.

    Hard to see if a relegation / promotion system would work, and if that would necessarily be any better than straight-up dropping the Italians.

    It’s sad because it’d be a shame to have to do that, but the current state they’re in I feel they’re genuinely having a detrimental effect on the tournament generally.

  2. The biggest factor is not playing numbers, it never is. The main issue is “culture”, and that’s the culture of the country, not a Stuart Lancaster soundbite.

    Every kid in NZ has a rugby ball, every dad in New Zealand knows how to play rugby, they can coach the kids teams, or offer individual feedback to their children. There’s just an “inherent knowledge” in the country developed by years and years of rugby excellence, which is why they can sustain their place on top of the World with much smaller playing numbers.

    I saw a study relating to football where they modelled this inherent knowledge by number of internationals played, and as a determinant in success it blew registered players out the water.

    When you consider registered players, you have to consider what it means. I am registered as a player in England, and a million mes wouldn’t improve the England team. This may also include inactive players who haven’t been removed; the RFU will directly benefit in terms of funding if they can boost their participation numbers, and therefore they will be inclined to report as high as possible.

    The fact that Italy aren’t very good at rugby can be put down to the fact that they just don’t really care about it. Football still rules. There is no history for the game, the national team have had no success to inspire, likewise the “super” clubs of Treviso or Zebre. The last success they had was admission into the Six Nations. If you think that would most effect 5-12 year olds (i.e. minis players) with potentially a boost in both youth numbers and youth coach numbers and ability, then those players are now 21-28 and should be making up this Italy team. The fact that they still don’t have a team capable of putting together a sustained run of not-terrible results speaks volumes.

    1. Agree with a lot of what you say – playing numbers certainly doesn’t = success. But the fact that it is behind football is again not a problem unique to Italy – that’s the case in France, England, Scotland as well. I think the ‘history’ point that you mention is probably more important – there’s perhaps not as strong a sense of tradition there as there is in other countries.

      Even if all of this is true, it still doesn’t explain why there has been very little progress made in Italian rugby, despite consistent exposure to tier 1 nations for some time now. That’s the million dollar question.

      1. I understand that football is quite popular in Argentina too, and that hasn’t stopped the Rugby team from improving.

  3. In one of my blogs of a year or so ago I suggested some sort of promotion ,relegation.That would at least take away the closed shop mentality. The likes of Georgia or Rumania would be no worse than Italy and if nothing else it would raise the standards in these countries. Either that or we go back to 5 nations!

  4. Would love to see a rugby heavyweight like Kochebi Bolnisi get into the Pro12 as they’d obviously do a much better job!

    its strange how this debate always comes up when Italy finish bottom. But never when it’s Scotland last year or France like they did in 2013 it’s not so much of an issue.

    France vs Portugal in the Six Nations 2nd Divison…I’m sure the sponsors would love that.

    1. Domenico, I tried hard not to make the article about why Italy should be replaced by Georgia in the Six Nations. That’s not what I’m advocating. I’m merely asking the question as to why Italy haven’t made any real strides since joining the tournament – yes, France and Scotland have both finished bottom, but not with the consistency that Italy have.

      I’m guessing your Italian yourself? Do you have any insight as to where it’s going wrong?

      1. I wish I did know where it is going wrong!

        However I do believe that there is light at the end of the tunnel. For the first time in a while Italy have some exciting young backs in Gori, Cana and Campagnaro to go with the traditional forward strength.

        This coupled with the new coaching set up could mean in a few years we are reading articles why the mighty Georgia should replace Scotland!

        Although I doubt this somehow!!

    2. When Scotland finished bottom last year and in 2012 there were plenty of articles and comments questioning their inclusion and calling for them to be relegated. Just FYI.

  5. The issue with the relegation idea is that every once in a while a bigger team will get unlucky and go out. And as this tournament began as the home nations that is nearly unthinkable.

    1. A play-off would solve that issue. Home and away legs. This would ensure whoever is coming up is actually better than whoever is going down.

  6. I am not sure why it comes down to relegation and promotion. I would be perfectly happy with a “8 Nations” and bring Georgia and Romania in. Better for everyone – more competition and more practice.

    You might have to make it biennial and in the off-year do more world-wide touring, but I think it would be worth it.

    You would also need a world calendar to make it happen.

    1. But why on earth would you – regularly – want to watch teams like Romania, Georgia and Italy get absolutely pasted by the other teams? No rugby fan in the world wants to watch an absolute drubbing, they’d prefer tight, close, interesting games… Adding Romania and Georgia will just end up in a situation where there’s the “real” Five Nations – and a sub-division of Wooden Spooners

      1. Because that’s the only way they will learn? Agree I have no need to see lots of thrashings, but at the same time the only way to grow the international game is to give them chances to play.

        How about we ask them to demonstrate their skill and commitment by creating a new competition that includes the Saxons, Wolfhounds, Georgia and Romania, and also maybe some combination of Russia, USA and Canada as well.

        Get that up and running and re-assess the situation in 5 years. If Italy are still bobbins then we introduce a play-off between the two competitions.

  7. There are ways of structuring an 8 team championship that still gives the same number of games as at present, just not the case of playing the whole tournament on a round robin basis.

    8 teams split into two pools of four. Top two in each group them compete for the championship, either as on another league basis (with the existing result between teams that have already played carried forward) or on a knock out basis. Same set up for bottom two teams in each group.

    A different set up so a change from the current mind set but it will produce some more competition and providing the two pools are seeded somehow, the cream should rise to the top. It will mean that some traditional fixtures don’t get played every year, but that may be an acceptable compromise to drive the tournament forward and expand the game in Europe.

  8. There are a number of great points made here. Firstly, my stance is that Georgia are miles ahead of Romania and should be ‘let in’ to a 7 nations. This should be reviewed on a five year basis eg. If Romania (or anyone else for that matter) dominate the league underneath (i forget the name) in the same manner Georgia have done, then ‘let’ them in also. I am sure relegation although would lead to tense finales will lead to even more attrition, people were moaning about how boring the brand was this year. I think a relegation aspect would add to this.

    As for Italy, there are a huge number of problems on all levels as I see it. Firstly, the federation finances two teams in the Pro12 who are not competitive at all. This money should go back to creating a competitive National Championship of perhaps 8 teams, with an 8 team (or more) 2nd divison also. There should be limits on foreign players to stop the pattern of 35 year olds or players not good enough for ProD12, France division 2 etc clogging up those sides. ‘Marquee signing’ or similar can add to these teams but I would limit this to one player, with a sprinkling or ‘project’ players who can qualify or are already qualified to represent the national side. Whether or not you agree with residency or grandparent qualified players it is within the rules as things stand. I have no issue with italians playing abroad, eg. Campagnaro has come on leaps and bounds training and playing with Exeter. I would try and get older italian players back however so that they can mentor and assist with younger players.

    Would it be an issue that they were not to play in the European cup? I dont think so. Qualifying and being competitive in the 2nd tier euro challenge would be sufficent.

    Any other money must be spent on popularising the game in and around Rome and Sicily (where rugby is popular at young ages) and attempt to ensure a decent spread of clubs away from the Northern heartland. Why not get the national side playing elsewhere than the Olimpico? Have any of the games there sold out? We can all agree its a smashing place to go for the weekend for a game but surely that must help.

    I think the issues here are very similar to the six nations and the bureaucracy within the organising bodies (I cant imagine the Italian Rugby Federation being ‘whiter than white’ when it comes to distribution of wealth / capabilities however I have no proof – Just going along with what their government and soccer clubs ethics are like!

    If Conor O’Shea is given carte blanche of a restructure it would be a hell of a job but one that is much needed!

  9. Personally I’d go for 2 tournaments; the 6 nations Championship and then have a 6 or 7 nations shield tournament. The shield tournament could be run concurrent or on the off weekends and involve the A teams, for those who have them, as well as Italy, Georgia, and any other deserving side (Portugal? Russia?).

    The inclusion of Ireland, England and Scottish A sides would probably lead to increased revenues for this second tournament and would give much needed competitive matches for the A sides.

    The understanding should be that none of the A sides can be promoted to the 6 nations proper. Where a 2nd tier nation wins the shield outright, they should be promoted to the 6 nations, and the bottom team from the Championship relegated automatically (and yes you could have the situation where Scotland have to play Scotland A), however if an A side wins the shield, then the top positioned 2nd tier nation would enter into a play-off with the bottom placed side in the main 6 nations championship.

  10. Good article.

    Quick point: My understanding was that Treviso was making good progress culminating in their seventh place finish in 12/13. Then financial problems hit (not sure of the cause) meaning their best players left, flooding the prem and the top 14 with all their stars and leaving them with little to call on. Can’t remember too many names but I think Masi to Wasps was one.

  11. I’m half Italian, with my mum’s side coming from near Treviso. From my own experience, the rugby culture over there is actually thriving at a grassroots local level, there are lots of local villages that now have rugby posts next to football pitches, more kids are getting into it, as well as parents.

    I was talking to some older dads last summer in my village about what attracted them to rugby, for them they liked the contact aspect of the sport, as well as the beer culture, and it seemed more ‘gentlemanly’ than football (so some of the stereotypes of rugby).

    One thing they mentioned in particular was that they didn’t really think of it as a professional sport, mainly because it’s never on Italian tv. I think there might be an occasional international match on Italian Sky sports, but not on terrestrial (compared with other home nations). Also (anecdotally) not many people tend to have Sky at home, people (at least in my town) go to the local cafe, where then obviously they normally watch football.

    The other thing the Italian dads also said was that rugby is a complex sport; they admitted they pretty much just enjoyed watching the contact, and they knew they didn’t understand half the rules. I think this is important, as my Italian cousin (who is mad about football) says the same thing that rugby is too complicated.

    IMHO lack of exposure to top quality rugby probably plays a part in stopping more people being interested, plus no one wants to watch their national side get drubbed (remember, Italians are VERY patriotic sporting wise, so will choose to support a sport they know they’ll win ie football). Also, the Economist article notes that Italians succeed at athletics as well as football, sports which I would say have many fewer rules than rugby. Granted, it might just be the image that rugby is too complicated, but I reckon that probably prevents people getting too interested.

    All these factors mean rugby, at a professional level, still seems like a fringe sport – so no wonder the quality of internationals is perhaps lower than other countries, where rugby culture is much bigger. Perhaps the kids who are both good at rugby and football (ie they might make good half-backs) are likely to to choose football as the more professional sport, which means the bigger, stronger kids who enjoy the contact more are going to progress (which might suggest why the Italian pack at international level is relatively strong). Not sure what to say regarding comparison with Argentina – perhaps exposure to Super Rugby means there’s a different playing mentality in the culture there, although obviously thats a bit of a stereotype/cop-out.

    Not sure how any of this could be tackled to improve Italian rugby. Personally, I think more rugby needs to be shown on Italian state TV – currently on Rai sport, the main free sport channel, they’re showing the Paris-Roubaix bike race followed by football and water polo (all sports Italian teams do well in). If perhaps more 6N was broadcast as it is here in England, more Italians could be engaged, and you might slowly increase the rugby culture (plus myself and my grandad might get to watch international games with Italian commentary).

  12. I think the Italians shouldn’t have high hopes in the 6 nations because suck. They have no chance against teams like England, Wales and France


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