Kieran Crowley cracks a broad smile as we end our conversation on the prospect of Italy pulling off a second consecutive Six Nations win over Wales.
“We’ll be having a couple of wines if we do!”
A Chianti or three would be the least the New Zealander deserves should it come to pass when the two sides meet in Rome on Saturday.
In less than two years, he has transformed the Azzurri from perennial tournament cannon fodder into a confident, stylish young side who many are tipping as favourites against Warren Gatland’s decorated visitors – an unthinkable prospect not long ago.
While a litany of problems gripping the Welsh game have their part to play in this story, increased Italian optimism is also the fruit of Crowley’s tenure.
In 2022, his first full year in charge, the Azzurri ended their seven-year Six Nations winless run, beat Australia for the first time and racked up five wins overall, their most in a non-World Cup year since 1998.
Although Crowley’s side are still winless after three rounds of this year’s Six Nations, the way they pushed the top two sides in the world, France and Ireland, all the way at the Stadio Olimpico was cause for great encouragement.
“I can’t fault the effort,” the former All Black reflects.
“We asked for a mindset change from the players. I can’t fault the fact that they’ve done that, or their work ethic. When we’ve reviewed games, it’s been frustrating, because we’ve created a lot of opportunities and we just haven’t been able to finish them.”
Those performances, combined with Welsh struggles, have raised hopes that Italy could be on the brink of their first Six Nations home win in almost exactly a decade.
A 22-15 victory over Ireland on 16 March 2013 was the last time Italian fans went home happy after watching their team in the Eternal City, but Crowley is more than aware of the pressures that come with expectation.
“It’s definitely a new challenge, a new experience, and that’s how you grow as a rugby player,” he says.
“You’ve got to be able to deal with that, try to control what you can control. There will be outside pressures demanding a win, expecting us to win, but Wales will have that too.
“It’s about learning to have that pressure on you, learning to deal with that expectation. You don’t learn that overnight; you’ve got to put yourselves in situations where you can learn it. We have that now and it’s going to be interesting to see how our boys react to it.”
“Wales are a quality side and the fact that they’ve not had the success they’ve had in the past doesn’t mean they have suddenly become bad. They have some quality players. We know it’s going to be one hell of a challenge”
Claiming victory would go a long way to ensuring Italy avoid the wooden spoon for the first time since 2015, a feat that would represent a major landmark for this young team.
But Crowley brushed off the suggestion that Saturday will be the biggest game of his tenure.
“Every game has pressure on it,” he says.
“You’re playing an international. I mean shit, if we get over the line then that’s going to be outstanding, but if we can play to our potential…some days you have a good day at the office, some days you don’t.
“Wales are a quality side and the fact that they’ve not had the success they’ve had in the past doesn’t mean they have suddenly become bad. They have some quality players. We know it’s going to be one hell of a challenge”.
Italy’s progress has been steady under Crowley, with some occasional backwards steps accompanying two steps forward.
They lost their opening four games in the 2022 Six Nations before claiming victory in Cardiff, while a summer defeat to Georgia and humbling 63-21 loss to South Africa in the autumn showed there is still a long way to go.
Overall, though, the picture is far cheerier than it has been for years.
“The last Six Nations we saw progression and then that carried on. In the summer it wasn’t the best, we learned a lot from a coaching point of view. But we’ve been able to kick on from there,” Crowley says.
Kick on they did, but Crowley is fully aware of the importance of results in how that growth is perceived.
“We had to build an identity and that was through the way we played and the effort we gave,” he says.
“By that we had to build credibility and respect. It’s not for us to say that, it’s for people outside.”
He adds: “(The Six Nations) is the best competition in the world outside the World Cup. To be competitive in it is a major thing and I think we have been.”
Crowley has leaned on a promising generation of young talent to provide the backbone of a new-look Italy side.
I’ve seen him grow as a captain over the last year, because when he first came in, he probably tried to put too much pressure on himself, but now he’s started to allow others to grow as well
Kieran Crowley on Michele Lamaro
Captain Michele Lamaro, speedster Ange Capuozzo, utility back Tommaso Menoncello, emerging No.8 Lorenzo Cannone and half-back partners Stephen Varney and Paolo Garbisi are among the contingent of players aged 24 or under to have played key roles in this year’s Six Nations – and there are plenty more waiting in the wings.
“We’ve got a few players who are very young. If they can get wins early in their career in this competition, it’s going to do massive benefits for their confidence and the realisation that they can cut it at this level,” Crowley says.
Skipper Lamaro has been a particularly inspiring figure for the new Italy.
The flanker’s goosebump-producing team talks and gutsy renditions of the national anthem have earned him fans outside the peninsula, and there have even been whispers that the hard-tackling Benetton man could be the natural heir to the great Sergio Parisse.
“The thing about him, and it’s the same with all Italians, is they are so passionate. He wears his heart on his sleeve,” Crowley says.
“He demands it from the other players as well, but he has respect because he plays like that too. You can’t demand things from your team if you don’t do it yourself, and he certainly delivers.
“I’ve seen him grow as a captain over the last year, because when he first came in, he probably tried to put too much pressure on himself, but now he’s started to allow others to grow as well.
“He’s going to be around for a long time hopefully. He throws himself around so much and puts so much emotional energy into the game that he takes a little while to recover.”
The other Azzurri player to have caught the attention of the wider rugby public is Capuozzo, who was named Breakthrough Player of the Year by World Rugby for 2022 after a stunning emergence.
The full-back came seemingly from nowhere to score two tries from the bench on his debut against Scotland, before memorably setting up the winning score against Wales and touching down twice in a historic victory over the Wallabies.
After our conversation, Crowley discovered that his star man’s Six Nations campaign is over, with the Toulouse man needing more time to recover from a shoulder injury sustained against Ireland.
His absence will be a major blow to the Azzurri for the final two rounds against Wales and Scotland, underlining how far he has come since bursting onto the scene this time last year.
“I wouldn’t say he fell out of nowhere and I wouldn’t say I had been tracking him for a long time either,” Crowley says.
We’ve taken the attitude that if you’re going to be on your line after you’ve done a great exit and kicked to touch, or you’re going to be under pressure inside your 22, why not take away the goalposts and the lines and play what you see in front of you?
“There are people here in Italy who knew of him and had highlighted him to us. I had watched a couple of club games and a couple of people said you need to have a look at him, so we brought him in…he probably fell into our lap a little bit but Italian people knew about him.”
But surely he didn’t expect this kind of impact?
“No one expects a player to come in like him! I mean he weighed 69kg, he’s only a slight guy, but he’s got speed, he’s brave, and he knows the game.
“You watch him at training, he understands where he needs to go, whether it be attack or defence. He’s certainly been a great advert for the game for Italy.”
Crowley’s attacking philosophy has arguably been another selling point.
Italy’s willingness to play their way out of trouble and take risks in dangerous areas, rather than deploying a more conservative kicking game, has drawn criticism in some quarters but it has certainly thrilled the neutrals.
Crowley explains: “We’ve taken the attitude that if you’re going to be on your line after you’ve done a great exit and kicked to touch, or you’re going to be under pressure inside your 22, why not take away the goalposts and the lines and play what you see in front of you?
“What we’ve got to get better at is managing when we start to go forward. But give yourself a chance first is what we’re saying.
“Let’s strike, look to attack, give yourselves a chance and then make a decision on when you want to kick the ball, rather than the first option being kick the ball – which sometimes it has to be. You just have to get that balance right.
“The other thing is that you play rugby to enjoy it. I hate these bloody kick fests and box kicks all the time, 100 scrums a game or whatever. You’ve got to have some sort of enjoyment in what you do and what you play.”
While the Six Nations is front and centre of Italy’s focus for now, an eye will inevitably be drawn towards a World Cup across the northern border in France at the tail end of the year.
Italy’s task in Pool A is formidable. They face two of the current top three sides in the world – hosts France and three-time champions New Zealand.
Crowley was part of one of those All Blacks title triumphs as a player, lifting the inaugural Webb Ellis Cup in 1987, while he starred at the World Cup four years later before going to two as Canada coach in 2011 and 2015.
Someone showed me the odds and I think Italy was 500/1 or something to win it. You’ve got the No.2 and No.3 team in the world. It’s going to be a massive challenge.
Crowley on having France and New Zealand in his World Cup pool
The experienced 61-year-old’s answer to the daunting task ahead? Take it one step at a time.
“Someone showed me the odds and I think Italy was 500/1 or something to win it,” he says.
“You’ve got the No.2 and No.3 team in the world. It’s going to be a massive challenge. Is it a free hit? It probably is in some respects.
“We’ve got those two teams last. We need to be very careful not to get ahead of ourselves, we’ve got two important games against Namibia and Uruguay in the first two.
“If you don’t get through those then you’re in a no-win situation anyway. We’ll take care of those two and then try to knock one of those others off. But that’s in the future.”
Crowley says his future also holds another Six Nations campaign – contrary to some reports in Italy that he will step down after the World Cup.
“I’m signed through to the end of the next Six Nations in 2024, so that’s where I’m signed to at the moment,” he said when quizzed on his future.
That will come as a relief to the Italian rugby public. After a year to remember in 2022, Azzurri fans finally have reason to hope that they can pass on the wooden spoon.
If they do, Crowley is unlikely to have to buy his own drinks when he goes looking for that glass of red in the enotecheof the Eternal City.
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