Team spirit the key - Johnstone
February 1, 2000
Team coach Brad Johnstone reckons that team spirit and self-belief are the key to restoring Italy's battered pride at the forthcoming Six Nations Championship.
The former All Black, who took over the helm of a sinking ship in December, told AFP that commitment and hard training could stem the disastrous run of results which started last year.
Beaten heavily in South Africa and at the World Cup, some are wondering whether it was a mistake to allow Italy into Europe's elite.
But Johnstone, who guided Fiji to the World Cup quarter-final play-offs, is convinced it was the right decision.
"If you're thinking about the growth of rugby union as a global sport, then this is definitely positive," he said.
"It's giving a country the chance to play at a high level on a regular basis - and they will get better.
"When France first entered the Five Nations, they had the same negative response and it took them several years. But now look at them. They're possibly the favourites for the competition."
Explaining last year's debacle, which included losing 101-0 to South Africa and 101-3 to the All Blacks, Johnstone said: "It was a combination of many things. They were a very young team, in international terms, who hit a peak.
"And when things started to go wrong, rather than the public and every rugby person in this country getting behind them, they were viciously attacked right, left and centre.
"The management structure fell to pieces, they changed coaches and the whole thing just came undone."
Johnstone clearly remembers his Fiji team playing a warm-up game at L'Aquila last August, as Italy prepared for a tough pool phase in England with the hosts, New Zealand and Tonga.
"The rugby people of Italy were saying it was impossible - they were in the 'Pool of Death' and basically it was a waste of time going to the World Cup," Johnstone said.
"Well, any team that goes into a game of rugby with that attitude is never going to succeed.
"I've got to get it back into their brains that it's still only 15 men against 15 men, it doesn't matter what colour jersey they're wearing and it's the team with the most passion, the better skills and the bigger heart that's going to pull it off on the day."
Italy do have some first-rate players, but one of Johnstone's problems is getting enough time with them to put things right.
"They've certainly got attacking ability. They've got players of the calibre of (Diego) Dominguez and(Alessandro) Troncon, who are as good as anyone in the world in their particular position," he said.
"The weaknesses at the moment are retaining possession and organisation. In the short time I've got, I'm working with them.
"But we only get them for a day and a half a week because we're continually fighting with French and Italian clubs to get the players released for national training. So it restricts what we can achieve."
Johnstone knows where he wants to take Italy and it is not down the road of a one-man team. He wants a more professional attitude and a lot more hard games at top level - where they get used to performing under pressure.
But on top of that, he wants: "An environment where the boys actually enjoy their rugby, where they become like a family and want to play for each other - rather than a whole lot of individuals who have separate agendas.
"I prefer having 15 ordinary players playing bloody well than a whole lot of stars picking their moments to perform," he told AFP.