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FEATURE ‘Winning is a daily process. It takes time’ – Marco Bortolami on the rise of Benetton

‘Winning is a daily process. It takes time’ – Marco Bortolami on the rise of Benetton
7 months ago

Marco Bortolami was a ground-breaking figure in Italian rugby as a player, and now as Benetton head coach, he has his sights set on taking them to previously unscaled heights.

Bortolami holds the record as the Azzurri’s youngest ever captain. Four days shy of his 22nd birthday, with just 10 caps to his name, he was tossed the captain’s armband by then-Italy head coach John Kirwan. A test against New Zealand in Hamilton is far from the easiest introduction to leading your country and while Italy lost 64-10, it was Bortolami who crossed for Italy’s try on a day when Sergio Parisse and Martin Castrogiovanni also made their test debuts.

After making his name at hometown side Petrarca Padova, Bortolami played in France’s Top 14 for Narbonne, and then for Gloucester in the English Premiership, both of whom he went on to captain. In 2010 he returned to Italy with newly formed Pro 12 franchise Aironi and after their licence was revoked, he spent four years with Zebre before ending his playing days in 2016.

Given his extensive leadership experience, it was no surprise that coaching beckoned on his retirement.

“It was something that started to grow in my mind at the end of my playing career,” he says. “Probably my role as captain put me in a place where I wanted to understand the dynamics of a group, first as a player and then as a coach.”

Marco Bortolami
Bortolami won 112 caps for Italy during a 14-year test career and led his country from a young age (Photo Glyn Kirk/AFP via Getty Images)

Bortolami’s varied career meant he came under the influence of a range of coaches. While he picks out Kirwan, his Gloucester boss Dean Ryan, and new All Blacks coach Scott Robertson – who he spent time observing at the Crusaders – as three he’s learned the most from, there is little understating the role former Benetton and Italy coach Kieran Crowley played in shaping his coaching path during the five years Bortolami spent as his assistant.

“I like the Kiwi culture, so it was easy to understand him as a coach and a person,” Bortolami tells RugbyPass. “I enjoyed and learned so much from him. I learned the importance of staying calm under pressure and being calm after a loss.

“It is not easy for me because I’m very demanding of myself and others, but it showed the importance of staying calm whether things were going well or going bad. So I’m very grateful for the five years I coached and learned with him.”

The peculiarities of Bortolami’s appointment as Benetton head coach in January 2021 meant he had to stay quiet about it for six months until Crowley was confirmed as Franco Smith’s successor as Italy coach in the summer of 2021.

The pair had a dream handover when Benetton beat the Bulls 35-8 in a one-off Rainbow Cup final, an end-of-season tournament created to help compensate for some of the economic and sporting fallout from the Covid pandemic.

Winning is a daily process. It is not something that comes up on a big occasion. So that’s why it takes time. It takes time to be in the knockout stages. It takes time to learn how to play those games.

It was the first significant international success for any Italian side, and filled a youthful team with the confidence to play an open attacking style that became the trademark of Crowley’s Italy team.

The club from Treviso, 40 kilometres up the road from Venice, have built on that success. Last season Benetton reached the knockout stages in Europe for the first time – progressing to the semi-finals of the Challenge Cup – and this season they were the last URC side to lose their unbeaten status.

“That was the first trophy that any Italian team won on the international stage and that was a big, big moment for Italian rugby as a whole and also for our young players,” Bortolami said of the Rainbow Cup success.

Federico Ruzza
Federico Ruzza (left) has developed under Bortolami’s tutelage as a key player for Benetton and Italy (Photo Valery Hache/AFP via Getty Images)

“But winning is a daily process. It is not something that comes up on a big occasion. So that’s why it takes time. It takes time to be in the knockout stages. It takes time to learn how to play those games. It takes time to be consistent with your preparation to get there every single year.

“Our target is very, very clear, very simple. We want to do better than last year. Whether it’s Europe or URC, we want to be better than last year. That doesn’t mean it’s easy. It doesn’t mean it will happen. But we’ve got to understand that every game counts at the end of the season and the best way to achieve your targets is to try to win every single game.”

During our conversation, Bortolami uses the word ‘synergy’ regularly, highlighting the delicate balance between player buy-in and coaching control. He has no problem introducing strategies that mean he and his coaches must relinquish control and become less important if his team is to fulfil their potential.

When Marco was forwards coach his main advice was not to try and fool him, and always try to better yourself. He wanted commitment and 100 per cent. For young players, him being our coach was a special stimulus.

He is certainly thorough, and no stones are left unturned as he seeks to build not just a team, but an entire club that is ‘pro-active’, with the mental strength to find solutions to the myriad problems that occur at rugby’s elite level.

One player that has come under Bortolami’s influence more than most is Italy second-row Federico Ruzza. The 29-year-old is a fellow Padovani and after four years working with Bortolami as forwards coach, he is reaping the benefit of his insight.

“Marco with his work ethic and strong personality has taken us all with him and created a competitive environment focused on elite performance,” Ruzza tells RugbyPass. “It is an environment where everyone is expected to give their all, and where the first thing everyone wants to do is give their maximum every day.

“When he was the forwards coach his main advice was not to try and fool him, and always try to better yourself. He wanted commitment and 100 per cent. For young players, him being our coach was a special stimulus. We knew about his past as a player and the presence he brought, and we all wanted to impress him.

“The thing that struck me was his detail and how we worked during the week. He makes sure we are as prepared as well as possible so that we are ready for anything that happens on the pitch.”

Michele Lamaro
Michele Lamaro is an inspirational leader for both Benetton and the Azzurri (Photo Alessio Tarpini/LiveMedia/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Ruzza and Bortolami are both aware that the better Benetton perform, the more likely Italy will benefit from a group of players who have experienced winning away from home or closing out tight contests.

Crowley’s Italy squad was based on the group of players he developed as Benetton boss – Ruzza, captain Michele Lamaro, Niccolò and Lorenzo Cannone, the now departed Paolo Garbisi, and centre Juan Brex – and they form the basis of a team that is recognised for its ability to move the ball quickly and attack the spaces out wide

Lamaro has grown swiftly as a captain and player, with pre-match talks and multi-lingual post-match interviews going viral, though Bortolami smiles when he’s reminded that his status as Italy’s youngest captain remains intact.

“Michele is a great leader. He leads by example. His intensity day in, day out is exceptional. He is hungry to learn, and he supports the other players and pushes the other players.

We have 20-plus players with the Italian team and hopefully going forward, we’ll have more because that means I’m doing a great job

“He’s still a young captain, so there’s still a lot he can learn. He has been exceptional for us and for Italy. Yes, there are some tough moments as a captain that you need to face and to front up to because ultimately when the team doesn’t perform, it’s you in the front line.”

Lamaro is likely to remain a key player for new Italy coach Gonzalo Quesada, who while not officially starting his role until 1 January, has already taken in Benetton and Zebre’s home matches and will have brought in the home-based players for two training camps before the Six Nations starts at home to England on 3 February.

Quesada has been in touch with Bortolami and Zebre coach Fabio Roselli to ensure the link between national team and franchises is strong, and the likelihood is that Benetton players will continue to form the backbone of the Azzurri.

“We have 20-plus players with the Italian team and hopefully going forward, we’ll have more because that means I’m doing a great job,” Bortolami says.

“We’ve exchanged a lot of ideas about the way we do things and the transition from Benetton to the national team and the other way around. We can have them better aligned, but what I really appreciated from Kieran and now Gonzalo is that they give us freedom to play the game the way we want

Marco Bortolami
Bortolami led Benetton to six URC wins in his first season, eight last term and five out of seven so far this season (Photo Ben McShane/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

“We are good coaches, so we are aligned probably on 80 per cent of the things we do. Then the other 20 will be adaptation. I feel it’s valuable for the players to be coached in a different way, because they can learn more aspects and nuances around the game that helps them to make better decisions.”

Talk of the national team raises a pertinent question. If Bortolami continues his good work with Benetton, and Quesada concludes his tenure after Rugby World Cup 2027, would the former captain fancy being the first Italian to lead Italy in a Six Nations campaign?

“Yeah 100 per cent,” he says without a second’s doubt. “That’s the aspiration of every coach and if it’s the right time for me and for the Italian team, I would be very happy.

“Sometimes the time is not right for the coach or for the team. I would be very happy regardless and hopefully my experience throughout those three years, four years will help the Italian team.”

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Comments

1 Comment
A
Angelo 226 days ago

Italian rugby is at a turning point. Hope that some positive development will come out of this still delicate process. Best of luck, guys!

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