Nick Mallett speaks to SA Rugby magazine about the challenges facing Italian rugby.
Italy were missing a number of first-choice players the last time you faced the Boks at Newlands. How much stronger will your squad be this time round and how have you prepared for the game?
Our squad is stronger, but lock Marco Bortolami is injured and centre Andrea Masi had to have an operation. I have a limited group of players to choose from, so the selection process is simple. I had a two-day get-together with the players in October and we reconvened 10 days before the All Blacks game. It was only then that I got to see the 10 guys who play their rugby outside Italy – I hadn’t seen them since June.
You are a passionate person, as are the Italians. What’s it like managing their rugby team?
Learning the language was the first challenge for me. I’m getting to the point where I can communicate properly with each player in his own language. I’ve played in Italy, and played and coached in France for 12 years, so I know the Latin temperament very well.
What are the biggest challenges facing rugby in Italy?
The major challenge is raising the standard of the local game. The Top 10 can be likened to the local Western Province club league in terms of quality – sides like Stellenbosch, Hamiltons and UCT would all be very competitive in Italy. So, taking players from club level to international level is a massive step up. Our fixture list is also incredibly taxing, as we play the Six Nations, then tour the Tri-Nations teams in June. I’ve had to lower my standards as a coach, and alter my perspective on what’s satisfactory and what’s not. Part of my job requires me to keep players positive, even when they’re playing a level above themselves, and pick myself up when results aren’t going our way. When I’d been here for 18 months, the Italian Rugby Union said it was happy with what I’d achieved – despite the fact that we’d only won two out of 12 Tests – and signed me on until the end of the 2011 World Cup. By the time we reach the World Cup, I would have only coached in one Test against a side ranked lower than us.
Sergio Parisse is regarded as one of the best No 8s in the world. How important is he to Italy?
He has been absolutely outstanding. He’s terribly competitive and he doesn’t have an inferiority complex when it comes to other players around the world, which a team needs. You need a captain who can motivate the guys on the field, and it’s helpful when he produces the goods and leads by example. He plays well for Stade Français, but he reserves his best for when he plays for his national team.
What are your thoughts on the Boks’ Tri-Nations campaign this year?
They were outstanding, and it was quite scary how they dominated New Zealand and Australia physically. They varied their game with some accurate kicking and scored some brilliant tries off first-phase strike moves. They are now acknowledged by everyone around the world – including Australia and New Zealand – as the best team, which is a massive compliment to the players and coaching staff. The Boks’ second-string XV is not nearly as strong as the first-choice one.
What do you believe is the key to beating the Boks?
Their two losses so far this year [to the Lions in Jo’burg and the Wallabies in Brisbane] can be put down more to errors on their part as opposed to how well the opposition played. The Lions took heart from their win, but it came against a disjointed Bok team that had untried combinations. As for the Wallabies loss, it can happen when you go down early, because you then try to push passes and do things you wouldn’t necessarily do if you were up by 10 points. The Boks paid for that, like when James O’Connor scored the interception try. It isn’t complicated playing South Africa. However, you have to match them physically, which is easier said than done, as the speed and strength of the Bok forwards is what separates them from other sides in the world. Pierre Spies, Schalk Burger, Bismarck du Plessis and Bakkies Botha are all strong, fast runners, and they’re fantastic defenders, so you have to be able to handle that physicality. The Boks also have strike runners who score off first-phase moves – they aren’t the best team in the world for nothing.
Is Saru doing enough to keep top coaches in South Africa, and what is the possibility of you returning?
It’s just the nature of professional sport that coaches will be scattered all over the world. In South Africa, there are only 10 top jobs that pay quite well, but if you’re not in line for them you have to look elsewhere. We should be flattered that coaches like Heyneke Meyer, Gert Smal and Alan Solomons have all been approached by overseas clubs. I’ll be 55 by the time I finish with Italy and where I end up after that will come down to a lifestyle choice. I want to be comfortable and spend more time with my two kids, who are at university.
– By Grant Ball
– This is an extract from an interview that appeared in the November issue of SA Rugby magazine. The December issue is on sale next week.