WHY RUGBY IN ITALY IS NOT AS GOOD AS IT COULD BE – DESPITE THE GLORY OF YESTERDAY

There is no doubting that the magnificent victory by Italy against France in their opening game of the 6 Nations 2013 was fully merited. They outplayed their opponents in every phase of the game and were able to do so up until the 81st minute – even keeping their composure with one man down and the French tantalizingly close to their try line. I can’t help, however, feeling that this win will only further paper over the cracks appearing in Italian rugby.

Let me start by saying that rugby in Italy has, until recently, enjoyed a period of sustained growth at grassroots level. Multiple clubs springing up in all areas of the country, numbers of players rising and, perhaps more importantly for the long term, media exposure – and by that I mean Sky TV – skyrocketing (if you pardon the pun) by comparison to the near non existent levels of only a few years ago. All great news and, you would think, that it means that Italian rugby is ready to be catapulted onwards and upwards and that teams, at both club and National levels, will be genuinely competing at a sustainably high level with the top teams in Europe and the world.

Surely, after over 10 years in the six nations, Italy (and I speak of the men’s senior team) should be capable of more than scaring most teams in the first 40-60 minutes of a game and, by and large, coming away with one single, solitary, victory a year – even if that is against the French (albeit a woeful France on the day) as they did yesterday and in 2011. There were positive signs in the November tests but, once again  they flattered to deceive and there was a fantastic win against France this week – playing rugby for more than 60 minutes for the first time in a long while. Maybe a sign of things to come, but let’s not get carried away just yet – we have been here before (albeit, perhaps, not in quite as emphatic a manner).

So why do they seem incapable of taking that ‘giant leap’ and challenge at all levels of rugby not just with their National Team.

Is it the National team structure? Perhaps, but I don’t know enough about it to make a genuine assessment.

Is it the structure of the league system? Perhaps not the structure, but certainly the quality is not terribly high apart from at Benetton Treviso who are genuinely capable of competing at European level. But is it not a terrible state of affairs where you can only point at one club in an entire country who are ‘above the line’ in terms of quality and competitiveness? It is also no surprise that the majority of Italy’s ‘quality’ players ply their trade at Benetton or out of the country. There might be a nod for Orquera, who plays for Zebre and was sublime on Sunday – but please remember how much he has been maligned in previous outings for the Azzuri. Perhaps he was due a good game, or perhaps he has become a more complete player. For me the jury is still out.

Is it at regional and grassroots level? Ah, now we are getting warmer! apart from in one or two notable areas in Italy, rugby at a regional level,  is poorly organised, poorly run and lacks the structure to bring the next generation of quality rugby players through the system. I am not necessarily talking about those who will represent their country – although that would be an added bonus- but those that are capable of (in the short and medium term) raising the quality of rugby all around the country and as a byproduct increase the interest in rugby and therefore the pool of people playing. All of which will have the knock on effect of raising the quality even higher and so on and so on. This would then almost certainly then lead to a higher quality of home grown players being available for the various national teams.

Before discussing how, in my opinion, this can be achieved, I believe it is important to understand the current structure of rugby at a regional level, the coaching input from the Federation and why I believe that numbers are once again dwindling.

Age groups: due to the lack of player numbers, age groups are not year by year but in two year groupings (u6, u8, u10,u12, u14 & u16), meaning that every year the team, that would in most other top tier countries be able to grow and develop together, divides, has to leave behind flourishing friendships, try to build new ones and then the following year you go back to the other group. There are two significant negatives from this structure.

The first is that it is not uncommon for players to play one year, skip the next and then play again the year after. This is primarily because they do not feel comfortable being the ‘smallest/youngest’ player in the age group (the size difference between a young 14 year old, for example, and an old and more mature 15 year old can be significant) and are genuinely scared of ‘playing up’. Or possibly, their parents (more on them later) are scared on their behalf.

The second, alluded to above, is that rugby is founded on friendship, camaraderie and a sense of being. The bond that makes team mates inseparable makes you prepared to shed sweat, blood and tears for each other. The X factor that, to my mind, makes rugby different to most other sports. If every year from u6 to u20 level you split that group and do nothing to try and keep the players together either on or off the pitch you are always going to be struggling to create that atmosphere. At a personal level, the one occasion I was able to keep a team together for 3 years – from u11-14- (due to a change in age group bandings) we saw the team grow both on and off the pitch. We (my fellow coach and I – coincidentally a Celt) were able to create an atmosphere of belief, teamship, discipline and fun that meant that the level of rugby grew to a level where the team were unbeaten at club level for two years, won a national tournament and bonded as a group through international tours and local events into a tight knit group – all working towards the same goal and all, without exception, growing as individuals. It also, and I do not believe that this is a coincidence, was a team that grew in numbers from 20+ to 30+. Word of mouth and success coupled together are powerful tools.

I’m not saying that it is possible to create age groups of same age players – numbers do not allow for this. What I am saying though, is that it must be a priority to ensure that the players are encouraged to socialise together and, where possible, train together in order to keep that important ‘golden thread’ intact throughout their playing careers.

Parents: One of the greatest barriers to getting kids to join a rugby club in Italy – and more importantly retain them – lies with the parents, or more specifically the mothers of potential players. Ok, rugby is not one of the top sports in Italy, but the level of understanding amongst those that we need to convince is non existent. To most parents, rugby is a violent sport. A logical conclusion to jump to if you have not had the reality explained to you. There is a programme dedicated at school level to get kids interested in rugby, but there doesn’t seem to be anything aimed at the parents. There is nothing available to give to individual parents and I have yet to hear of parents being invited to a club, or school for that matter, to learn about the game. Mothers also need to be made aware that their son playing rugby in the rain is not a death sentence. It’s all about education.

Schools:  Given the current level of sport in schools at all levels in Italy, it is no wonder that rugby (a second or third tier sport at best) struggles to get a foothold. Each pupil gets 2 measly hours of sport a week. There are very few schools that have any playing fields and, consequently, they are restricted to using a school gymnasium. In the 10 years that my children have been in school here I think they have been restricted to basketball, dodgeball and occasionally ‘shipwrecked’. Add that to the fact that not all schools are happy for someone to come and run rugby lessons and you can see what an uphill struggle it can be. On top of that, add the fact that the Federation does not provide the coaches to work in the schools and that it is left to individual clubs to provide the staff (during working/school hours) and you can see how the uphill struggle becomes a mountain to climb.

Regional (county level) rugby: This should be something that all talented and moderately talented and ambitious players should aspire to, not so here – let me explain why. (I have to admit that this is based on my region and may not be the same across the whole of Italy)

  1. Regional level rugby in Italy only occurs at two age groups, U15 and U16. That’s it. Nothing before and nothing after. Surely this is wrong in every conceivable way.
  2. Regional rugby should be special for a player.  Players should be made to feel that they have done something above and beyond the norm if they make it to the regional team. Their clubs should make the player feel that they have done something to be proud of and most significantly a positive environment should be created to encourage players to embrace the success and drive others on the fringe to try harder to become part of it – all part of the cycle to improve individual and group skills. There should be an invitation to a trial – based on recommendations made by the club coaches or firsthand information gained by the federation’s regional coach(es). The trial should be a genuine competition for selection. Those successful should be written to, congratulating them, informing them of the programme of training and matches and their club should also be encouraged to praise them for their success. Those unsuccessful should also be written to, thanked for their participation, encouraged to try again and their club coaches informed as to which particular aspects of their game (if any have been identified) should be worked on. The reality is that there is no initial selection. Club coaches are encouraged to send all of their players to the first regional training session regardless of ability, then, invariably, all those that are present are selected to attend the matches. So in effect a regional training session becomes glorified club training – larger numbers perhaps but no step up in quality.
  3. There should be a programme of squad training sessions (two a month as a minimum) and then a series of competitive matches against other regions throughout the country. The reality? This season (September to May 2012/13) there are 6 training sessions and 3 match days – always against the same two regions and always played in the same region – so no Home matches at all.
  4. There continues to be no continued ‘selection’ throughout the year and, as players are so reluctant to get involved, it is not unusual for the team to travel with less than 22 players – and never with the 22 best players in the region. It is true that this tends to affect the u16 level more than the u15 level as they have already had a year of being deluded by the structure and format. As an aside the Marche regional team does not even have any shorts or socks for players! This sums up the level of attention given to the team.
  5. Training sessions tend to be repetitive and not once have I seen a regional team conduct any training that puts players in their positions (not even in pairings, 9 & 10, 12&13 etc) meaning that the only time that players do any work as a unit is during competitive matches. Not even any set piece work – not a single line out, not a single scrum, not a single penalty or free kick move, nothing! How are you supposed to create a team (never mind a competitive one) when players have no idea how to play together? I won’t get into playing structures and tactics as there are none.

Federation work at a regional level: again I am basing my observations at a parochial level, but from talking to other coaches around Italy I am led to believe that the same is more or less true).

The structure for my region has, at a technical / coaching level, one Federation coach. In addition, this Federation coach is not occupied full time as a coach (he is a school teacher) and, in addition, he is also a coach at a club in the region. Yes, it is true that he has a few other local club coaches that assist him at regional training sessions (so 6 times a year), but, apart from delivering the occasional low level coaching course and organising visiting coaches to deliver mandatory lectures for existing coaches, his involvement in developing rugby in the area is less than visible. With their being no professional or even semi professional clubs in the region, nor are there many club coaches delivering a cohesive programme within schools or clubs due to work commitments.

Diminishing numbers:

Having seen numbers of players and clubs grow over the last few years, it is disappointing, to say the least, to see this trend reverse.

Various clubs that came into being in the last 5 or ten years have started to fold. Yes the financial crisis has had a significant impact on this fact, but I am firmly of the belief that a club with a healthy roster of players and parents who are engaged will always find a way to survive the economic situation until better times come back.

If my belief is correct then the crux of the problem must be the number of players leaving the sport. So we must ask ourselves why this is the case. Having taken a straw poll of players aged between 14 and 18 the answer is pretty much always the same. They are not having fun. When asked why the response is equally as clear. Every training session seems to be the same, repetitive, dull and not what they want from their chosen sport.

When I put this to some coaches at these age groups I got the same answer from them all. It is how they are being asked to coach by the Federation technical representative!

So, either this regions Federation rep has gone rogue or, a more likely scenario, the Federation itself has a very particular philosophy as to how rugby should be coached.

Again, as at a regional level, teams do not train in positions (maybe 10-15 minutes on the third and last training session of the week), do not practice their set pieces and players are not being engaged and challenged. There is also no real social aspect to being at a club and no contact with the senior team – no role models, nothing to aspire to. I can probably count on the fingers of one hand the TOTAL number of junior players (U6-U16) who go and watch a 1XV home match. A significant factor in this is that the players and parents are not encouraged to go and I believe that they don’t even know that these matches are being played.

In this region, a few weeks ago, there was only one valid match played at u16 level – all others being won by default as at least one of the teams turned up with less than 15 players. One team had a 90 minute coach journey to find that the home team did not have the requisite number of players to make the match competitive. they had not informed the away team of the impending problem meaning players of my sons team did not play a valid match this season until their 5th game.

They have scored significantly more than 100 points in each game without conceding. This is not a boast, indeed I think it is tragic, as no team can develop and grow when there is such a chasm between the two. Can you imagine how the opposition feels? Can you really expect players to turn up for training week in week out if there are less than 10 at training and that, at the end of the week, they don’t have a full team, never mind a competitive one and have over 100 points scored against them. The same applies for the winning team. Where does the motivation come from to train and improve? Even the most driven of individual will struggle. Unlike the UK, Ireland or France, you can’t just go down the road to another team!

U20’s rugby:

In all countries, the age groups, from u16 to 1st xv, are the most fragile and are where clubs always struggle to compete with the lure of wine, women and song outside of the club environment and retention becomes a major issue.

Italy’s answer was to get rid of the u18 level and make the step from u16 directly to u20 level. Sheer madness.

They should be addressing the cause of the problem not simply accepting it and lumping all the problematic age groups together. To add insult to injury, it does not work. Going back to the fundamentals of team spirit etc, how can you really create that unbreakable bond between players when you have the needs and wants of a 19 year old to cater for as well as those of a 16 year old? The age gap is just too wide as is the size and ability gap. As a consequence numbers are still low even with 4 year groups to play with.

What needs to happen is that clubs need to create an environment where u16 players can see the value, fun and benefit of continuing to play rugby. Bring the wine, women and song into the club! Then you can begin to at least have a chance at retaining players and keeping both u18 and u20 categories functioning and healthy.

Punishment:

Did you know that, at a senior level, in clubs around Italy you are punished if you do not have a junior section to the club? I am not sure if this applies in other countries or not. Regardless, in a country that is struggling to get rugby ‘on the map’ it should not be the case.

In the first year you are immune, the second year you are punished with -4 points if you do not have an u14 team and thereafter -8 points.

The thought process driving this is that, in order to grow the game, every club must have a junior section and that the point deductions are the way to ensure that clubs do. A laudable sentiment perhaps, but not one that is necessarily practical for all teams (those with a very small catchment area for instance). That having been said, I have yet to speak to a club who does not want to have a junior section but with little (a small grant in the first year and a set of shirts) or no support from the Federation how is a small club supposed to get coaches into the schools (most coaches work for a living and cannot get into schools during the working day) and also find coaches to run the teams. Clubs starting the season with -8 points are unlikely to win or even do particularly well in the league, sponsors are not going to be beating a path to the door and therefore the funds to create a junior section are even harder to come by. A vicious circle.

The Federation should be delighted that there are clubs wanting to play rugby regardless of the fact that they may or may not have or want a junior section. The level of serie c rugby is not, let’s face it, very high. Why can there not be the ability to have clubs who only have a senior team, have fun playing rugby and if, as a consequence, the club grows, see it as a benefit rather than a mandatory requirement.

The Federation also makes it an administrative nightmare to register foreign players in a club – even those from the EU who, one would have thought, should enjoy the same rights in a rugby club as they do in everyday life within the community! Surely it should do everything in its power to help players register. A recent example at my club revolves around a French national. Firstly the federation insisted that, in addition to getting confirmation from the French federation that he has NEVER been registered to play there, he needed to have his formal residency registered in Italy and that he had to have his own, personal bank account. Given he was unemployed, to open a bank account he had to find €5,000 to put into it! Not easy when you are not working. This took from September to January. He was then registered, the club received his registration number on the Saturday and he played on the Sunday. Later the next week his document arrived and we saw that he had been registered as a Foreigner, not as an Italian player as he was entitled to be as he had, hitherto, not been a registered rugby player. Result:- an automatic loss registered against the match he had been played in, a 4 point deduction and a fine! Yes we can, and will, contest it, but should that really be necessary?

Reading this you might think that rugby in my region, and potentially in Italy in general, is a basket case. Absolutely not.

There is a massive amount of goodwill towards rugby and there is huge potential to develop the game despite all of the problems.

I do believe that the message coming down from the Federation needs some adjusting and that the structure of the Federation as it pertains to the team (or lack of it) of Federation coaches within each region and its scope of operation needs readdressing. I refuse to believe that the Italian Federation does not have the funding, or the wherewithal, to help deliver a greater number of coaches working on their behalf in the regions and that their brief should be broader than just the occasional technical briefing to other coaches and running regional level teams at u15 and 16 levels.

The crux of the problem lies with the number of players coming through and their subsequent retention. How could we improve on this?

  1. A programme of educating parents – mothers in particular – needs to be developed. Producing a DVD that highlights all of the benefits that rugby brings above and beyond the national game of football (teamwork, respect, enjoyment, discipline and sportsmanship). The fact that the game is not violent, the fact that there are statistically more injuries in football at a junior level. This should be led by the Federation with the help of top players and celebrities who are big fans of rugby. There should also be literature to support it and open evenings held at schools and clubs specifically aimed at parents.
  2. A similar set of information available for kids. A more user friendly Federation website with a section for kids to visit and play on in an interactive way.
  3. Clubs need to be more proactive in creating an environment that will encourage players to continue playing rugby. This needs to relate to both on and off the field activities. It needs to be aimed particularly at u16 level and above. Social events are a good place to start.
  4. Regional rugby needs to be made competitive and special. I do not subscribe to the philosophy that even the regions that are worse off rugby wise cannot find 22 quality players if they are treated well and are engaged. I also believe that it is a must to play against other teams than simply the same two all the time. There also needs to be the possibility to have a ‘home’ match every so often not always have the embuggarance of travelling away and to give parents the opportunity to watch their child play representative rugby without a 4 hour return journey .
  5. The Federation should stop punishing teams just because they don’t have a junior section. Celebrate the fact that people want to set up rugby clubs and then help them develop the club – if that is what they want. They need to be given the tools to do so and the Federation needs to be proactive and not reactive to this. If that means that there is not the possibility of promotion to a higher league then that is fine, just don’t take away a level playing field.
  6. I was told a few months ago that my sons rugby club spent over €5,000 on getting articles into the local press about forthcoming matches and match summaries!  Surely there must be a way for all clubs to forge relationships with their local press to ensure that there is exposure in the papers, on the radio and, if it exists, the local TV station, all without spending funds that could be better used elsewhere within the club.

In conclusion:

Rugby in my region, Le Marche, is at a critical stage. I can not over emphasise the fact that if something drastic is not done, the situation is going to worsen. I suspect that, with a few notable exceptions, this might be a growing situation throughout Italy. Italy has worked so hard to get itself into a position where there are knocking on the door of some of the best teams in the world. What a shame that their ‘star’ players ply their trade abroad and the Italian public don’t get to see them and hear about them on a weekly basis apart from during the 6 Nations and the November test period. The unfortunate effect of this is that rugby is still not even an afterthought for the majority of Italians on a weekly basis, recruitment of new blood is tough, very tough, all leading to club teams not being competitive in Europe. Consequently rugby is not being plastered over the national press on a weekly basis – even the national sports paper only occasionally has anything meaningful in it regarding rugby. This then translates into the lack of positive role models in the sport encouraging youngsters to come into the game. Back to that vicious circle.

To change this is not easy and will take a lot of time. Therefore the development of the game needs to be approached from the bottom up and needs to start with educating parents. I firmly believe that if we can do that then we will be on the right road. I have yet to meet a parent who, once their child has become involved in rugby, has not become a ‘fan’. Grateful that they eventually found the game and espousing the positive effect it has had on their child.

The situation is resolvable (without vast sums of money being spent) but we need to act now!

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