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FEATURE Why resurgent Italy will 'knock some heads' in the next four years

Why resurgent Italy will 'knock some heads' in the next four years
1 month ago

Italian rugby fans could be forgiven for looking towards the Rugby World Cup with a sense of trepidation.

Hosts France and four-time champions New Zealand await in pool A, meaning progression will require one of the tournament’s greatest ever upsets.

But it’s all a matter of perspective.

Stephen Aboud knows that better than most, having masterminded the transformation of Italy’s youth pathways which has made the country’s rugby future appear rosier than it has for decades.

“The goal was never now, the goal was 2027,” Aboud tells RugbyPass+.

If you’re not familiar with the name, you shouldn’t be shocked. Aboud isn’t one to hog the headlines, but don’t mistake low profile for low impact.

Italy v Wales - Guinness Six Nations
Kieran Crowley led Italy to impressive wins over Wales and Australia in 2022, but is moving on after the World Cup. (Photo by Danilo Di Giovanni/Getty Images)

After 26 years working in a variety of roles for the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU), Aboud upped sticks in 2016 to become head of technical direction of players and coaches with the Italian Rugby Federation (FIR).

The fruits of Aboud and his colleagues’ labour started to show last year when Kieran Crowley’s young Azzurri side earned wins over Wales and Australia, and the Irishman is as insistent as ever now – more than a year on from leaving his role in Italy – there is much more to come.

“They’re going to be very mature by 2027,” Aboud says.

“You need an average age of about 28-29 to start winning things and they’re going to be about that age in four years.

“The next four years is going to be – I hope – absolutely wonderful for Italian rugby at senior level, as a result of the journey that all those people contributed to.

“They will deserve every moment. They will knock heads in the next four years, they will do some damage.”

One of the big changes between now and then will be the arrival of a new coach in Gonzalo Quesada.

“I always use the analogy of wine makers and wine drinkers. If you’re busy drinking wine and not making it, you’re going to run out of bottles.

The Argentinian’s appointment after the World Cup – and current incumbent Crowley’s removal – came as a somewhat abrupt and surprising piece of news in June.

“I know him [Quesada] a little bit and he’s an exciting, imaginative, brave coach. He could be the guy who switches these guys into another level,” Aboud says.

It’s easy to understand Aboud’s excitement. Burgeoning figures such as Paolo Garbisi, Tommaso Menoncello, Federico Mori, Gianmarco Lucchesi and Manuel Zuliani are all 23 or under with double-figure caps to their names.

Plenty more are just a little older – Ange Capuozzo, Michele Lamaro, Nicolo Cannone and Marco Riccioni to name a few – while the next generation is already starting to muscle its way into the senior set-up.

Aboud namechecks locks Andrea Zambonin and Riccardo Favretto, back-row Giacomo Ferrari and fly-half Leonardo Marin as some of the “five or six” names we will likely be talking about soon.

He is a man worth listening to. Paul O’Connell and Brian O’Driscoll are among the flurry of names Aboud reels off when looking back on the players he worked with during his long spell at the IRFU – in which time the Irish system became lauded as an enviable model of joined-up thinking which can’t stop churning out talent.

Aboud – suitably for a man who made such an impression on il bel Paese – likens rugby development to wine making.

Italy v Ireland - Guinness Six Nations
Italy are producing a slew of exciting talent, captained by Michele Lamaro. (Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images)

Speaking from his new office in Vancouver Island, where he recently took on a role as Rugby Canada’s high performance director, he explains his vision.

Reflecting on his start to life in Italy, Aboud says: “We sat down and looked at it and thought ‘what do we need to change structurally and what can we change structurally?’ – not always the same thing.

“Then who are the people we need to have in this who we have already, and who do we need to entice into this, so that everything can work together? You just need patience.

“I always use the analogy of wine makers and wine drinkers. If you’re busy drinking wine and not making it, you’re going to run out of bottles.

“Then you’ll have to find your bottles from some other source and not your own vineyard. That’s going to cost more, and you might not even like it.

“Ultimately when you’re finished drinking it, you’re still left with no wine. We’re in that wine making business in the kind of thing we do and sometimes we don’t stick around to enjoy it.”

Aboud insists he doesn’t have a “magic wand”, but the results speak for themselves.

In the seven years since he first got to work, Italy Under-20s have enjoyed a marked upturn in form.

One of the first things I started looking at was that aspect of control,

They went from three consecutive whitewashes between 2016 and 2018 to three victories in 2022, including a famous first-ever triumph over England.

This year they earned a top-half finish in the Six Nations before stunning hosts South Africa with victory at the Under-20 World Championship last month.

History has been made recently at Under-18 level, too; in 2021, Italy defeated four of the five countries from the Six Nations, losing only to France.

Many of the players responsible for those results were promoted to the senior Azzurri set-up, and last year’s statement wins were the biggest signs yet of the direction of travel in Italian rugby.

So how did they get here?

“The three key principles are: do you have control, which is influence on the people you want to work with,” Aboud says.

“Obviously in Ireland we paid everybody, so there wasn’t an issue like in England where the clubs are independent of the union. Having that control with all our staff is one of the first three principles.

“The second thing is having access or contact. If you go to a maths class once a week rather than five times a week, you’re not going to develop or learn as quickly as somebody else. That contact aspect is important.

“Ireland is small, it’s not like Italy which is quite large. You must remember rugby is the fourth most participated sport in Ireland after two Gaelic games and soccer. It’s not like we’re jumping out to play rugby.

“Then the last part of the three principles is the quality you put into that.

“If you have quality people, that’s the key ingredient. Everybody can have contact and reasonable control, but the key ingredient is developing quality in your people. If you have quality, you’re going to make a difference, especially over a period of time.

“I don’t see these things as complicated in context. These are just principles you try to respect in the context of the resources and the culture you have, and you’re just patient.”

RUGBYU-WC-2023-IRL-ITA-FRIENDLY
Italy lost their opening Rugby World Cup warm-up matches to Scotland and Ireland respectively. (Photo by PAUL FAITH/AFP via Getty Images)

Easier said than done, you may well be thinking, and sceptics weren’t far away when Aboud first got to work trying to bring his vision to life.

He remembers meeting former Azzurri scrum-half and Under-20s coach Alessandro Troncon – “you won’t find a more passionate man about Italian rugby” – and being told “you’re not going to change anything because that’s just the way the clubs are and Italian rugby is.”

“That was a sobering moment,” Aboud recalls.

“Where one of the most decorated, charismatic and wonderful people in Italian rugby is actually telling you what he really feels and believes.”

But once the Irishman and his team got to work, things did start to change, one piece at a time.

“One of the first things I started looking at was that aspect of control,” he says.

“We realised that we do have control, but it’s spread out too wide and the area we control wasn’t the clubs, it was the regional development programmes.

“The problem was, there were about 12 or 16 of them, and it was spread too thin to get the qualitative work in with the best. Ultimately you [want to] do the best work with the best people, most often.

“By reducing it to four, retaining the very best, we were then able to put our better resources with the four [regional development programmes] rather than spread them out among 12.

“That was something that Franco [Ascione, former FIR technical director] did very quickly. He said, ‘let’s reduce the focus and get more control and contact with those four regions in U17 and U18 level, ultimately culminating in the U19/U20 national academy, where the very best of those would transition into one centre’.

“Filtering that process, ensuring that the quality work is done more often with the very best players, is respecting those three principles.”

They really felt it and were getting it in the ear on the Six Nations, especially on television.

Aboud also placed great importance on building culture – “understanding what we’re about, our technical vision going forward, what does it look like and what does it mean when you translate it into action technically and on the field.”

This meant regular staff meet-ups of where vision could be reinforced and issues dissected and tackled.

“We had a huge amount of exchange across the system from the highest level to the lowest level in the pathway. We created a strong cultural family, working towards it from the very start,” Aboud adds.

One word comes up time and again: patience.

It’s something the Italian rugby public have required in abundance, but can be a rare commodity in the world of elite sport.

While Aboud was making structural changes for long-term gain, there was no getting away from the doom and gloom surrounding the senior side.

Italy won a solitary Six Nations match during his tenure, the final game of Aboud’s stint on the peninsula, in Cardiff last year.

During that dark and difficult period of annual whitewashes, you didn’t need to look far to find a pundit suggesting the Azzurri were thrown out of the competition altogether – without recognising the work already being done to change things for the better.

“It really hurt the people around me,” Aboud says.

“Not just the Italians, who were in it longer than I was and had given everything. They really felt it and were getting it in the ear on the Six Nations, especially on television. It really hurt them and upset them.

“But it upset a lot of my really close friends in Ireland as well, because Ireland has always been a very staunch supporter of Italy in the Six Nations. It would upset them when they would hear people on television, even Irish people, saying these things.

“People who say these things must lack total empathy and understanding. Their position is usually far from the bottom, so they can pontificate about who should be let off the lifeboat. Throw this kid off or throw this guy off. But they’re not the ones who are going to be on the shortlist.

“I usually find the people who made those comments generally don’t understand what’s going on and don’t have empathy about it.”

The nature of the job means Aboud he will be long gone by the time this young national team hits its peak, but he has no regrets.

“It’s great to see the joy in other people,” he says.

“But you know when people say ‘nothing lasts forever?’ I’m always focused on that.

“As soon as you stop, things go back into reverse. As you stop trying to improve something or look after something, it starts to go backwards.

“It’s like having all those bottles you’re drinking. If you’re not restocking, you will eventually run out. That’s usually my focus around the time when these things [the win in Wales] happen, you’ve already moved on.

“It’s a wonderful experience, but to see the ridiculously wonderful level of emotion, through other people, I love that.”

There may well be more of it to come. Watch out, World Cup 2027.

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