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FEATURE Sebastian Negri: 'Italy have earned respect and credibility. We let ourselves down'

Sebastian Negri: 'Italy have earned respect and credibility. We let ourselves down'
8 months ago

As Sebastian Negri reflects on a difficult week, you start to wonder if he and his Italy team-mates have spent the past few days blasting out Chumbawamba in the dressing room: “I get knocked down, but I get up again, you’re never gonna keep me down…”

That is certainly the approach being taken by the flanker after being badly knocked down in a bruising, shocking and – there is unfortunately no other way to put it – embarrassing 96-17 defeat by New Zealand.

Italian resistance collapsed in Lyon as they shipped 14 tries and conceded the joint-most points in a single game at the 2023 Rugby World Cup alongside stragglers Namibia, who had previously lost 96-0 to France.

The result came as a big surprise to anyone who has paid close attention to the development of this talented young Azzurri side over the past two years.

Paolo Garbisi
Italy’s chances of an upset were talked up in some quarters, but New Zealand delivered an almighty hammering in Lyon. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

From wins over Wales and Australia to knife-edge Six Nations battles with France and Scotland, Italy have deservedly started to be taken seriously once more by the wider rugby world under head coach Kieran Crowley.

But after a performance and result which threatened to undermine years of hard work, Negri – who will start on the blind-side flank against France on Friday – says there is nothing for it than to sweep that match under the carpet.

“In sport and life, you’re going to get knocks, it’s about how you respond,” Negri tells RugbyPass.

“I think it was good we had the day off after the game to switch off, be with our families and loved ones, and come back to do a quick review, but not dwell on it too much.

We have to take that on the chin and take responsibility. It’s up to us to turn it around.

“Over the last 18 months or two years, we’ve gone about getting respect and credibility back in this group, and I think we have done that.

“That’s why there has been more noise around us; we have earned that but we let ourselves down against New Zealand.

“We just want to put a good performance together against France and again show people we are on the right track.”

Discipline, set-piece and individual errors – especially in defence – were highlighted by Negri as areas which went badly wrong against a ruthless All Blacks side.

“Of course, there are going to be questions asked, we have to take that on the chin and take responsibility. It’s up to us to turn it around,” he adds.

Negri carried tirelessly into the teeth of New Zealand’s defence, but could do little to alter the result. (Photo Michael Steele/Getty Images)

But there is no atmosphere of doom and gloom.

The message from the team has been uniform this week: one very bad day at the office will not unravel years of progress or send their World Cup ambitions flying off the rails.

Paolo Odogwu called it “a freak game”, Tommaso Allan immediately wanted to “scrap this” result and Crowley himself suggested he would spend some time “locked in a room with beers” and then move on.

That is because, for all the negativity and criticism that has been thrown at the Azzurri since Friday night, they still have a winner-takes-all Pool A finisher against the host nation to look forward to.

As if a first-ever quarter-final spot and the prospect of claiming one of the tournament’s biggest ever shocks wasn’t enough, the clash with France now also gives Italy a golden opportunity to prove to the watching world they are more – much more – than what they showed in Lyon.

“There will be more pressure on France,” Negri says.

We have got a massive opportunity to right the wrongs against France.

“It’s a case of bouncing back and showing people again why there has been a lot of talk around us and why we are on the up. We have got to take responsibility and embrace that, not shy away from it.

“I’ve got the feeling in this group that the boys will learn from what happened and move forward very quickly. We have got a massive opportunity to right the wrongs against France and put in a performance that we’re proud of and the Italian people are proud of.”

Unlike the All Blacks, France are a team Italy have at least some reason to believe they can surprise.

The Azzurri have lost all 16 of their Test meetings with New Zealand, but they have beaten France three times.

Granted, the most recent of those victories came 10 years ago, but the real reason for lingering Italian belief could be their performance in February’s Six Nations clash in Rome.

Italy were agonisingly close to a famous scalp, taking the lead in the final quarter before going behind once more and then failing to convert a five-metre driving lineout with the clock red.

Kieran Crowley
Kieran Crowley will leave his post as Italy head coach after the Rugby World Cup. (Photo by Tullio Puglia – Federugby/Getty Images)

“It shows we’re not far off,” Negri says of the five-point defeat. “We will take confidence from that.

“But I don’t think we’re focusing too much on the outcome, we’re focusing mainly on our performance.”

French headlines have been hogged in the build-up by the fitness of star scrum-half Antoine Dupont, “one of if not the best player in the world” according to Negri.

But for Italy, added motivation comes in the form of a man who will soon be leaving rather than returning.

Coach Crowley will depart his role after the World Cup to be replaced by Gonzalo Quesada, meaning Friday’s game could be his last – unless something spectacular occurs.

“He’s been an incredible coach. He’s an incredible man. It’s been an absolute privilege and honour to play for him,” Negri says.

“Personally, and I’m sure I speak on behalf of the boys, we want to do it for us, but also for him.

“Whatever Kieran gets, he fully deserves, because he’s been awesome. I can only wish him the very best for everything he encounters in his life.”

For all he has done to elevate Italian rugby in the last seven years, firstly at Benetton then with the national team, Crowley has earned a send-off to remember.

The New Zealander will be hoping Negri and co make sure that moment is postponed just a little longer – after all, what better way to put the ghosts of the All Blacks thrashing behind them?

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