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'I want to be the best No9 in the world': Varney's new confidence

By Chris Jones
Stephen Varney of Italy looks on during the Italy Team's Run, prior to the Guinness Six Nations Round Five match between Wales and Italy, at the Principality Stadium on March 15, 2024 in Cardiff, Wales. (Photo by Ryan Hiscott/Federugby via Getty Images)

Gloucester scrum-half Stephen Varney helped Italy enjoy a historic Guinness Six Nations championship this year, but now many of his international teammates are threatening the West Country club’s bid for European Challenge Cup glory.

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Italy defeated Scotland and Wales and came within the width of a goalpost of turning a draw with France into a third win of a campaign that showed the immediate impact new coach Gonazalo Quesada had made, giving the team more structure to their kicking game while not blunting their attacking ability with ball in hand. This was the first time since 2015 and the past eight tournaments Italy had not finished bottom of the Six Nations table.

Benetton arrive at Kingsholm on Saturday for the semi-final clash featuring high-profile Italy players such as the outstanding centre partnership of Tommaso Menoncello, voted the top player in the Six Nations and Ignacio Brex along with back row heavy hitters Michele Lamaro and Sebastian Negri.

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Varney’s inside knowledge will be useful in the build-up to a match that can help Gloucester erase the memories of a difficult Gallagher Premiership season that sees them languishing in ninth place.

A home defeat by Exeter last weekend was hardly the best preparation for a cup semi-final but Gloucester have become knockout experts, finding an extra gear in those contests this season, beating Castres and Ospreys on their way to a last-four match. They also won the Premiership Rugby Cup to give the squad a much-needed lift.

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Now, as the season draws to a close, the chance to claim a second trophy is focussing minds with the potent threat posed by the Italians adding to the sharpness in training.

Varney, who will be 23 later this month, said: “Benetton are hungry dogs with a chip on their shoulder because of what the media say about them with a good physical pack and some exciting backs to play off. They are a dangerous threat and one we can hopefully nullify this weekend and put a performance in that we can be proud of.

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“I keep in touch with Seb Negri and he is a good friend of mine and I sent him a quick message – nothing about the game – but I don’t think I am mates with any of them this week! Seb is massive and hopefully our forwards will deal with him.

“The set piece will be massive and Benetton kick the most in the URC and we are expecting a lot of kicking from them and this is knock-out rugby and it’s about who makes the first mistake. We haven’t had the best run in the league but in the knockout games we have nailed them and I don’t know what it is – we click when we know that if we lose then we won’t be playing in the competition again.

“Hopefully, we can have the same mindset and put in a performance to get the win and reach the final.”

It has been a dramatic turnaround for Italy after they conceded 156 points in the final two 2023 World Cup pool defeats against New Zealand and France when Kieran Crowley was in charge.

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“We have made massive strides as a team (with Italy) and with Gonzalo Quesada coming in our kicking game has been better. Being part of the best Italian team in history has been amazing.

“I played with some of the guys at U18 and U20 levels including Menoncello and so I know them well and they are a good group of lads. We are now 23-24 years old with 30 or 40 caps under our belts and while we are very young we have a lot of experience and are in a very good spot internationally. Hopefully, we can have a good summer tour building into the next Six Nations and back up what we have achieved.

“The draw with France certainly was frustrating and unfortunate, but we are still the best team Italy have ever had with the best Six Nations performance.”

Varney, who featured in the first Netflix series on the Six Nations, admits to struggling with confidence early in his Test career but having worked on his mental strength he now has the confidence to say : “I want to be the best No9 in the world.”

His try against Scotland with a sniping run and then a brilliant score to end Gloucester’s 16-year wait for a win at Leicester have been personal highlights and with Wales scrum-half Tomos Williams arriving next season, he knows there is no time for treading water.

“Mentally I am strong and I came off the Six Nations playing with lots of confidence at Leicester and it was amazing to be part of making history for Gloucester,” added Varney, who was born in West Wales and qualifies for Italy through his mother Valeria.

Varney was named in the Italy Under 20 squad for the 2020 Six Nations U20s Championship and made his senior international debut for Italy from the bench that year in the Autumn Nations Cup against Scotland.

“I haven’t really had time to reflect on things and I am still young and want to keep improving. It is important to have strength in depth and with Gareth Anscombe and Tomos Williams coming to Gloucester it will make everyone better players and competition gets the best out of you. They will push us and we will push them.”

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William 5 hours ago
All Blacks vs England takeaways: Richie Who? Time for Cortez

Correct analysis of Perofeta’s bungling of the try opportunity Ben. Never ‘fixed’ Steward as he came across in defence and passed too early. Steward didn’t have to break his stride and simply moved on to pressure Telea. Never scanned the easier option of passing to the two supporting players on the inside. Beauden Barrett showed how it is done when he put Telea in for his try. Another point from the game is that the rush defence is hard to maintain as the number of phases increases. From scrums the defensive line only contains backs who all have roughly the same pace. Once forwards are involved, the defence has players with variable speeds often leading to a jagged line. It also tends to lose pace overall giving the attack more time and space. Beauden Barrett’s break to set up Telea’s try came because Baxter went in to tackle McKenzie and Steward went out to cover Telea. Barrett has a massive hole to run through, then commits Steward by passing as late as possible and Telea scores untouched. Another comment I would make is that Ben Earl is a good player and generally an excellent defender but he made three significant misses in the series, two of which led to All Black tries. Got stepped by Perofeta in Dunedin for Savea’s try, missed McKenzie in Auckland leading to what should have been a certain try being set up by Perofeta and was one of the tacklers who couldn’t stop Savea in the leadup to Telea’s first try. Perhaps he should contact Owen Farrell to pick up a few tips from ‘tackle school’.

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