Jacques Brunel leaves Italy with nothing but a Six Nations relegation battle
Enrico Borra
March 23, 2016

Sometimes the numbers say it all.

The Jacques Bunel era has come to an end and it has done so in the worst possible circumstances. He leaves Italy ranked 14th in the world, behind Japan, Tonga and Georgia. They stand seven points off the world's top 10, but more alarmingly are just seven ahead of Uruguay in 20th. This year's Six Nations was their worst ever in terms of points scored and conceded, and resulted in their 10th wooden spoon in 17 seasons since joining the Championship.

It's sad when the tenure of a highly-anticipated coach ends the way the Frenchman's has.

Brunel's was the name former Italian rugby supremo Giancarlo Dondi had on his wanted list for almost a decade. The two men flirted for so long and Brunel had been close to the Azzurri bench so many times ahead of his 2011 appointment. When he finally got that flight to Rome in the dying days of Dondi's 16-year reign, he was welcomed in Italy as the new rugby messiah.

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Previous incumbent Nick Mallett, a man remembered in his native South Africa for a 17-match unbeaten streak when he was in charge of the Springboks, handed Brunel the keys to a team that had once again walked away handed from the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand.

Mallett left Italy after four years of bumpy roads, but his style was imprinted into the DNA of his men. In four years, above all, he gave Italy an aggressive yet efficient defence -- one with which most nations had trouble dealing. The set-piece and interpretation of the breakdown were widely admired. The battling 2009 defeat by the All Blacks in Milan, in front of a full pack Stadio San Siro, will remain one of the pillars of his vision. He definitely had his moments of crisis but when he left, his legacy was there to be seen.

On that heritage Brunel was asked to build a new mentality. The former Perpignan coach based his new offensive approach on that strong defensive attitude, and started to work on a more entertaining yet effective attacking style. Italy had almost no ideas with ball in hand, and their tactical kicking game was literally a mess, so he 'introduced' Italian fans to the famed French running rugby. Historic wins against France and Ireland in Rome quickly followed, and France were eventually beaten again in the Eternal City.

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But after four years in charge, it is hard to see what Brunel has given Italy. That aggressive defence is nothing more than a faded memory, set-pieces are no longer the abrasive weapons of old, and his team is no longer the collection of personalities with international pedigree that helped Azzurri reach that magic night in San Siro. Attacking rugby left fields open to opponents' offences, while the tactical kicking game is still an unsolved question. Everything vanished and he left a team that is totally Sergio Parisse-addicted.

Some may say the Azzurri show a new readiness to run the ball out wide. Others may point to new faces -- Carlo Canna being perhaps the most intriguing prospect. But the lack of depth that has thrust Canna into action is scary to say the least. Italy have produced good young players in recent years; Michele Campagnaro, Luca Morisi, and Leonardo Sarto to name just a few. But the rugby has been caught in a negative spiral.

The truth is that today, Italian rugby is a mess.

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Forget the embarrassing defeats in Ireland and Wales. The real problems were evident in the closer games against France and England. The image of Parisse attempting that improbable last-gasp drop goal against Les Bleus in Paris, with a famous win on the line. That unintelligible counter by the inexperienced Mattia Bellini in Rome against the future Grand Slam winners showed that rugby in the country of the Bella Vita is a totally different sport from the one played in the rest of the world. A sport with no consistency, no accuracy, no precision. Nothing.

Worryingly, those plays have been defended by certain Italian fans. They praise players for "taking responsibility", so Parisse is cheered for his drop goal attempt. They even call for an 'Italian way', welcoming a form of creativity that has no rugby sense at all. Modern rugby is about so much more than just passion and heart.

The World Cup was the last call for Brunel and Parisse. They failed in their mission. The Italian Rugby Federation's decision to prolong that decline brought the recent Six Nations embarrassment. Brunel will be removed and Parisse should understand he is not the kind of captain the team need anymore. He is an outstanding athlete and experienced rugby star -- by far the brightest Italian rugby has ever admired. But it's time for a new man. Coaches must do their job and players must play the game on the field. Italy need to move on and establish roles that may be defined and defended from distortions.

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And so to the question on everybody's mind. After the latest Six Nations disaster, should Italy be forced to play a relegation game against Romania or Georgia?

The answer is no. But if the idea were included in a new Six Nations format, with a play-off between the wooden spoon-holders and the winner of the secondary European Nations Cup (ENC), then the answer would be a definite yes.

I am an Italian rugby fan and have experienced the pre-Six Nations era of my country. I remember the celebrations that greeted our introduction to the 'Golden Club' and the way our rugby has changed from 2000. How can I deny others the same experience? I would love to give the same chance Italy had to any other nation that deserves it. I do not fear broadening the Six Nations' boundaries, but the Championship's other five unions must be put under the same pressure. The idea that Italy should be the only side threatened with relegation makes no sense. History shows that in recent years Scotland have been as uncompetitive as the Azzurri. Even France finished bottom of the table once.

If Northern Hemisphere rugby wants to raise the bar to match the SANZAR powerhouses, then everyone needs to feel unsafe. Everybody needs to risk their privileged position. Every year. Italy should say yes and kickstart the new format by accepting a play-off against ENC-winners Georgia. But France and the Home Nations must also accept their part in a perilous future.

© Enrico Borra

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