Italian Rugby
Brunel demands Italy raise their game
Enrico Borra
October 6, 2012
New Italy head coach Jacques Brunel watches over training, Parma, Italy, November 28, 2011
Italy coach Jacques Brunel has backed his side to hold their own against Tonga, Australia and New Zealand next month © Getty Images

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Twelve months ago on a cold and wet October night, Italy were floundering as Nick Mallett's four-year tenure as coach came to an end with a Rugby World Cup defeat to Ireland that ended their hopes of a first-ever quarter-final appearance.

The famous four-seasons-in-a-day Dunedin weather had washed over a poor performance that was a reminder of another painful defeat in a World Cup decider four years earlier when Scotland claimed a nail-biting 18-16 win in St Etienne.

A year on, the Italian Rugby Federation now finds itself in a delicate situation. They can't afford to waste another opportunity especially in three years' time when the jewel in international rugby crown is hosted in nearby England, who just pipped Italy to the hosting rights. Another disappointment would jeopardise the amazing rugby-mania that was ignited, and continues to burn, in Italy ever since they made their Six Nations bow in 2000.

There is a huge level of expectation among Italian fans whose hunger for the game recently swelled the 74,000-seater Stadio Olimpico, but new Italian coach Jacques Brunel knows very well that time is on his side. He started his reign in this year Six Nations campaign and helped the Azzurri avoid their fifth consecutive wooden spoon.

His side then went on to notch victories against Canada and the USA in June having lost to Argentina and now they face a tough southern hemisphere challenge with Tonga and heavyweights New Zealand and Australia lined up next month.

"The analysis I make is that we turned our back on a difficult year and have made good progress," said the Frenchman. "Our players had to face a change in coaching and the traditionally complicated post-World Cup year but they did it quite nicely. Now we have to kick off the new season in style because we have all the qualities to make Italians proud of their national rugby team."

Italians will warmly welcome the World Cup-winning All Blacks with probably another sell out in Rome where more than 50,000 tickets have already been sold. But Brunel is more focused on what is happening on the field than what is happening in the stands. "We played eight games, winning three and wasting at least a couple more wins against England in Rome and Argentina in San Juan. We simply need to stop wasting chances."

A lack of consistency is the main reason behind the litany of missed chances. "This season we have played only minutes of what we have been working at in training since last November. We need to up our game and support the game-plan for the entire 80 minutes of play. This must be our mission for the next six months."

A lack of a world-class kicker is another black mark against the Azzurri. "Kicking has been a problem for us from the beginning until the end," Brunel conceded. "Our lack of accuracy when taking penalties cost us some wins and the tactical kicking game is a weapon we wanted to use but we've never been able to explore. We now urgently need to address those two crucial components of modern rugby and we started discussing the steps we need to take with players and coaches."

Italy gathered in Bologna this week to kick start the new season. In the 31-man group, Brunel called up six players with two caps or less. "This year we gave our youngsters the chance to taste international rugby and understand the mental and physical level it requires. We now hope they will confirm their value with their clubs and in the national team as well because they are our future and soon also our present."

Finding the right formula between new and old faces is another task the former Perpignan coach is looking for. "We have some very interesting youngsters that we must introduce in the core of our team," said a confident Brunel. "Young players are very important as they bring freshness and enthusiasm in our group, but veterans' experience is crucial to win games. So we are in the midst of a process to get that right balance in place for the good of our growth."

So the new season looks to be a turning point for Italian rugby according to Brunel. "It won't be an easy road, we know it," said Brunel, a former assistant to ex-France coach Bernard Laporte, "but because we are going to face teams that are ahead of us in the rankings, we must be focused on play our game and compete from the beginning until the final whistle, so to keep the score close and increase our chances to win games."

The French coach doesn't want to think about the future, though, and added: "We don't have a target in terms of wins. We want to be competitive against every opponent and think one game at a time."

International rugby on ESPN (UK) next month:

Saturday, November 10
Italy v Tonga (14:00)
France v Australia (20:00)

Saturday November 17
Italy v New Zealand (14:00)

Sunday, November 18
France v Argentina (delayed, 08:30)

Satruday, November 24
Italy v Australia (14:00)
France v Samoa (delated 23:30)

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