Enough to make grown men weep: Nine games, seven losses, six by five points or less, three by clock-in-the-red scores
It’s a good job Benetton boss Kieran Crowley is a glass-half-full sort of guy. Nine matches, seven defeats, six losses by five points or less, three due to last-gasp, clock-in-the-red scores. That would leave most coaches pulling their hair out in despair.
The pattern has been tough for the Italian club boss. Just last May he received the Guinness PRO14’s coach of the year award at a gala event in Dublin.
Now the 58-year-old is tasked with a very different challenge, repeatedly picking his players up off the canvas after some devastatingly late league and cup hits.
For instance, it was an 80th minute Dan Jones penalty that gave Scarlets their 18-16 PRO14 win on November 9. Two weeks later, the Italians relinquished a 25-8 Heineken Champions Cup lead over Gallagher Premiership pace-setters Northampton. They were beaten 35-32 with an 80th minute Dan Biggar penalty.
Then came their latest end-game calamity, their 28-17 lead after an hour ultimately getting scrubbed out last Saturday by Jason Harries’ last-second converted try. That agonisingly made it 31-28 to Cardiff on the whistle in the PRO14.
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Enough to make grown men weep? Yes, but that negative is ironically also a positive given where the Treviso-based club were only a few years ago, happy just to make up the numbers rather than produce any semblance of a performance to take pride in.
“I looked at the changing room after the Northampton game and then I put ourselves in that same position three years ago,” said Crowley to RugbyPass ahead of this weekend’s return to European action, an away Saturday at Top 14 leaders Lyon.
“I would have looked at the changing room and they would have had smiles on their faces, but they are now just gutted and that is the (positive) thing. We hurt big time and that result really stung for us.
‘Most teams in Europe have fines if you arrive late, but we think making players understand that to be on time is a value is more important’
– @MarcoBortolami tells @heagneyl about the transformation at @BenettonRugby to get back into @ChampionsCup https://t.co/utb25EvECk
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) November 16, 2019
“It’s about letting it sting because it needs to. But then there was also a hell of a lot of good stuff in there, so you have got to balance it and that is where we have been with it. Hopefully, when we get in those sort of situations or those big moments in games we manage them better.
“What we are lacking at the moment is consistency. I know consistency is an overused thing but we are lacking consistency in key moments. Like, for example, if I take the Northampton game, we were well in control of it.
“We then had three or four incidents in the period from 30 minutes to 60 minutes which cost us big time because players just went slightly out of the system or slightly didn’t understand the time of the game or things like that.
— Benetton Rugby ? (@BenettonRugby) December 5, 2019
“People come back and say, ‘oh you gave away a penalty in the last minute to lose’ but we should never have been in that position. It’s the consistency in big moments,” he explained, adding how Benetton’s run to last season’s PRO14 quarter-finals, another fixture they lost late on when they should have won at Munster, has raised the premium on producing wins.
“They [the crowd] expect it, we expect it. We are now starting to expect things but also with that expectation, you can’t just think it is going to happen. You have got to work hard at it and we have just got to keep doing the things that we are doing.
“When things don’t go right, and we have only had a couple of wins this year, you don’t chuck everything out, don’t chuck what did work for us. Maybe we are just not as clinical as we should be in this area at training or whatever. Those are the things we have got to do.”
Time to see if Monty Ioane and Benetton Rugby can take Munster down as he promised https://t.co/i4CcaWID4t
— liam heagney (@heagneyl) May 4, 2019
Conscious of the need to set the tone at the start of a week, Crowley is becoming a dab hand at picking up the pieces and getting on with it with a smile. “The coaching philosophy is very much around accentuating the positives rather than concentrating on the negatives,” he said, reflecting on Benetton’s current ‘unlucky losers’ patch.
“I very much think that the staff provide the energy, the staff have to come in each day and be up and they have to provide that for the team. You have little games, you have little meetings, you can’t have death by meeting, things like that.
“We try and make those things fun or a lot more enjoyable and try to have only one or two points in those meetings or whatever, not a whole lot of things. I don’t know what might be different because I’m in any other environments at the moment. What we are doing might be exactly the same as other teams, but it’s just the way we do it.
Young-gun Ollie Sleightholme went over for this effort as his side pulled off a classy comeback ?
Genuine contenders for glory this season?? ? pic.twitter.com/01fx6SeY8J
— Heineken Champions Cup (@ChampionsCup) December 2, 2019
“Players have to buy into it. You can’t go in and tell them how to act or how to do it. They have to come up with those sort of things, so they have to be invested in what they are doing and that is our big thing now.
“They are invested in the culture, they are invested in the way they play, they are invested in the way they train, they are invested in the standards and if you can get all those things right and then you get a couple of results on the field they get self-belief in it. So they believe in the investment that they are doing. It’s good.”
Having arrived in 2016, it was just last September when Crowley agreed to a contract extension that will keep him at the club until June 2022. In the meantime, the situation above him has changed, Conor O’Shea stepping aside as Italy boss and Franco Smith stepping in on an interim basis for the 2020 Six Nations.
The pure drama of this ?
— PRO14 RUGBY (@PRO14Official) December 5, 2019
As a former coach of Canada, Crowley is well versed on what is needed at Test level but he is unsure what the Azzurri’s recent change at the top might mean for Benetton. “I don’t know. Franco comes in on January 1 and he is the interim head coach until the end of the Six Nations. I don’t know how that is going to work. They will do what they want to do.”
It was in Japan that New Zealand lost its grip on the trophy first won in 1987 when Crowley was part of the All Blacks set-up as a player. He likes it that their defeat to England was so heavily debated, suggesting it was a sign the sport remains in rude health.
“It’s still religion back there. The people who were there [involved in the loss] handled it well. You have got to do that because you have got to give credit to the team that beat you. England went great in that game and they deserved to win.
"My boy was playing under-11s rugby and we could barely get nine or ten players to come out and play whereas with football they were scratching two sides together." @ShaneWilliams11 talks regional rugby decline with @heagneyl ???https://t.co/opEhls2mH2
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) December 1, 2019
“I know they [fans] will still moan about the result. If you lose it is a national disaster in New Zealand but that is what is great about it because everyone has got an opinion and everyone has got a say and if they didn’t have that you wouldn’t have the sport,” he said, adding that nothing really surprised him at the 2019 finals.
“Not really. Teams played as you thought they were going to play. Just the performances of Japan went to another level around that side of things. There is still a place for the physicality of it, but if you can get that balance between how Japan play and how South Africa play it would be a great game.”
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