Italian rugby is surrounded by wolves. Not the nurturing sort, like the one that reared Rome’s mythological founders, Romulus and Remus, but sharp-toothed blood-drinkers in the guise of critical journalists and fans who have long lost patience with the Azzurri’s meagre contribution to Europe’s premier rugby union competition.
The statistics support their howls to cut the straggler from the pack. Italy vindicated their inclusion in the Six Nations when they beat Scotland 34-20 in their inaugural outing in 2000, but have won just 11 of their subsequent 96 matches and in 21 seasons have finished last 16 times. They are on a 33-game losing streak stretching back to 2015 and last year broke records for most points conceded (239) and most tries conceded (34), finishing with the worst ever points difference of -184. They have never beaten England.
All signs point to a regression. And though the clamour to include Georgia has quietened, there is mounting momentum behind a bid to make room for South Africa. Facing the wall of gnashing teeth is a man who understands that time is against him. “We know we have to start pulling our weight,” says Kieran Crowley, a World Cup winner with New Zealand in 1987 who took charge of Italy last May. “I’m not against promotion-relegation. It might be a good thing. That’s a decision for the boardrooms. What I will say is that we can silence that chat with our own performances.”
After serving as an All Black selector and then under-19s coach, in 2008 Crowley was appointed coach of Canada, staying in post for eight years. He then signed with Benetton, where he took the Treviso franchise to a first ever Pro14 quarter-final, losing by two points to Munster in 2019. Last year he broke new ground by winning the Rainbow Cup, an admittedly diluted tournament but the first international silverware lifted by an Italian club.
Can Crowley’s minor success at Benetton help to break the losing cycle with the national side? “Sometimes it’s felt like it’s never going to end,” admits Sebastian Negri, the 27-year-old loose forward who was part of Crowley’s Benetton team. “We take it personally. But there are a few of us who now know what it means to win something. That can only have a positive impact.”
In team meetings, Crowley has emphasised two words: respect and credibility. He believes that too few players have respected the jersey and that this has led to a depletion in Italy’s credibility as a tier-one nation. “There are only two professional franchises in Italy,” Crowley offers as a cause for this complacency. “If you play for Benetton or Zebre there’s a good chance you’ll get the call. Players haven’t had to fight like they have to in France or England.”
To rectify this, Crowley is encouraging his players to seek employment abroad. But he has also made contact with three England-based players: the Harlequins wing Louis Lynagh, who was born in Italy, the Wasps wing Paolo Odogwu, who has Italian parents, and Alex Lozowski of Saracens, who last played for England in 2018 but could take advantage of World Rugby’s new eligibility laws through his Italian grandmother.
“I’ll work with any player who is available and is good enough,” Crowley says. But change is slow. Of his squad of 33, only six play outside Italy – four in France and two in England. One of them is the 20-year-old Gloucester scrum-half Stephen Varney. Born in Wales to an Italian mother, he has roots in Cesena and Parma, and his great-grandfather served in the Italian army in North Africa during the second world war before he was captured and placed in a prison camp in west Wales.
“It’s in the blood,” Varney says with a Welsh accent. “We’re passionate people. We’re aware of what others are saying. Kieran has called us out and to be honest we needed that. We want to prove we belong. We all want to be the generation that turned things around.”
With an average age of 23, Italy’s is the youngest squad in the competition. Two of them are teenagers, including the wing Tommaso Menoncello, who scored against France on debut. Several have graduated from impressive youth groups that now regularly beat the other five nations.
Paolo Garbisi is a standout. The 21-year-old fly-half has helped drive Montpellier to second in France’s Top 14 table, occasionally nudging Handré Pollard to inside centre. Italy’s captain, Michele Lamaro, will be 24 in June, leading a group not stained by what has come before.
There are drawbacks to youth, of course. All told there are only 440 Test caps throughout the squad – that’s 186 fewer than Wales, who have seven established players out through injury. And while Crowley stresses the need for patience, he recognises the urgency of his situation. “We’ve got to get the monkey off our back, but we’re up against five of the best eight teams in the world with an inexperienced group,” he says. “It’s a chicken and egg thing with results. We’ve shown we can play well in patches. We just need to do it across the 80 minutes.”
Italy kept New Zealand scoreless for almost half an hour in November before shipping four tries in the final quarter. They led France twice in the first half last week but faded in the second, losing 37-10. Even an improved performance will probably not be enough against Eddie Jones and his wounded England on Sunday. The wolves will continue to howl. Only a win will make them go away.