Italian Rugby Has a Flat Battery and Treviso Holds the Jumper Cables
On Friday Treviso travel to Cardiff looking to ignite their season and provide Italian rugby with a timely shot in the arm, writes Martyn Thomas.
Since joining the Pro12 in 2010, Treviso has not finished bottom of the table – fellow Italian clubs Aironi and Zebre have helped make sure of that.
This season, however, finishing last in the 12-team Celtic league is a distinct possibility.
Treviso have won just two games all season, and lost both of their back-to-back derbies against Zebre at the turn of the year – as many defeats as they had tasted in eight previous Pro12 meetings.
And they were damaging results. Treviso have competed at the top table of European club rugby – be it the Heineken Cup or European Champions Cup – for the past 12 consecutive season, and have missed out only twice since the format’s creation in 1995.
The Italian federation is guaranteed one participant in the Champions Cup, meaning whoever finishes highest of Treviso and Zebre will take their place alongside Toulon, Saracens et al.
Thus making their Christmas fixtures a de facto European play-off.
Fortunately for Treviso, their form has picked up since January. February began with a win over the Cardiff Blues at home – new coach Marius Goosen’s first – as Treviso won two of their three matches, and picked up a losing bonus point in the other.
Their only assignment in a March scheduled stunted by the Six Nations, meanwhile, was a trip to west Wales to face the Scarlets. Treviso led 15-14 with 21 minutes to go but did so for only eight more, as a penalty and converted try helped the hosts secure a 24-15 and robbed Goosen’s men of even a bonus point. Progress nonetheless.
Treviso’s trip to the Welsh capital, to face a Blues team lying ninth and with little chance of making the top six, therefore represents an inviting opportunity to bite into the three-point advantage Zebre hold over them in 11th.
The game will also provide several Treviso players with an immediate shot at redemption. The Blues’ Arms Park home is unique in that it is attached to the Millennium Stadium, the setting of Wales’ nine-try defeat of Italy just six days previously.
The national stadium will loom imposingly over proceedings for those involved as the Azzurri completed a bruising campaign with a second capitulation in as many weeks. Davide Giazzon, Alberto Luchesse, Luke McLean, Francesco Minto, Andrea Pratichetti, Braam Steyn, Alessandro Zanni and Matteo Zanusso might hope to make their club returns elsewhere.
Argentineans must watch Italy’s plight and rejoice that they were never admitted to the Six Nations. But how has it come to this for the Azzurri?
After all, it was just three years ago that the national team and Treviso were enjoying what were hoped were breakthrough seasons.
Italy beat both France and Ireland in the 2013 Six Nations as they equalled their best finish of fourth. Treviso, meanwhile, finished seventh following a season that included wins over Munster and fourth-placed Scarlets, as well as an away point against eventual runners-up, Ulster.
It looked briefly as though Italian rugby was coming of age, but neither Italy nor Treviso have been able to kick on. The Azzurri have collected two Wooden Spoons in the intervening three years, while Italian rugby’s premier club are on course for a third successive bottom-two finish.
The reasons Treviso have stagnated are manifold, but have their basis in one commodity – money.
Twenty-two first-team squad members have departed the club since they signed off the 2012-13 season with a 41-17 win over the Scarlets in Llanelli. Three players have retired, while as many have headed west to play for Zebre in Parma, but the bulk of the rest have gone to richer clubs in England, Scotland and Wales.
Barbieri has since returned, as has McLean, who joined Sale Sharks for the 2014-15 campaign, but the standard of recruits has not been good enough, and their number has been too large.
Former head coach Umberto Casellato brought in 24 players during the 2014 off-season. At the time the running repairs looked necessary given 13 first-team members had left or were leaving, but the result was a second successive straight 11th-placed finish.
Castellato would lose his job following the home defeat to Zebre two months ago. The coach had not been helped by uncertainty above him, though.
The Italian federation have twice threatened to pull their clubs out of the Pro12, initially in February 2014 because of administrative indecision, and subsequently due to an unpaid bill of €1.5 million that was owed by Treviso and Zebre to the rest of the league.
On each occasion a solution was found, but with London Scottish and London Welsh doing little to hide their interest in joining the Celtic party, it means it’s not only the national team who are having their place among the elite questioned.
Victory over the Blues on Friday might do little to dampen that talk but it would restore a measure of pride in the Italian game when it needs it the most. And help Treviso preserve their own relatively proud record in the process.
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