Brunel: Italy are on track
December 17, 2012
Jacques Brunel at the World Cup draw in early December © PA Photos
Italy coach Jacques Brunel insists his team is on track after his first 12 months at the helm of the Azzurri.
Despite being unable to deliver a single great result - though Italy went closer than ever against England and Australia - the former Perpignan supremo succeeded in avoiding Italy's fourth Six Nations wooden spoon in row in the early months of his tenure.
Additionally, the team won two out of three Test matches in June and closed the year with a precious win against Tonga, a very good performance against the All Blacks and went inches close to landing the first draw against the Wallabies.
Most importantly Brunel got Italy back into the International Rugby Board's top 10 - a feat that his predecessor Nick Mallett failed to achieve in his four years stint in Rome.
"Our goal for the autumn international series was to keep growing in our play, trying to impose our ideas and stay focused on the selected gameplan for the entire game," said Brunel. "We know we had a difficult period ahead as we had to face some tough teams like the All Blacks and the Wallabies, but I guess at the end of it all we should be satisfied by the way we progressed during last month."
One win, two defeats - with positives and negatives - is the balance of a November that marked a year of undoubted growth for the team coached by the Frenchman, brought to Italy by former FIR president Giancarlo Dondi to replace Mallett after the World Cup.
"We started with a bad performance against Tonga, when we lost too much ball and failed to control the match as we planned," he continued. "But on the other end we need to win it and we won, and that's something we should take as a big plus, because the ability to deliver in terms of wins is something Italy need to develop quickly if it want to climb in the rankings.
"Then we rose against New Zealand, forcing them to play 50 minutes of very good rugby. We played from the start the way we have been working on since last year, surprising the world champions with our pride and organisation - and that has been a landmark for this teams. Those 50 minutes against the All Blacks helped us build a very good game against the Wallabies in Florence."
Against Australia, Italy failed to deliver the result they craved after a late missed penalty from Luciano Orquera blew a possible historic draw against Robbie Deans's side.
"We lost against the Wallabies but Italy showed an unprecedented intensity for the whole 80 minutes of the game," Brunel pointed out. "We made some unforced errors and had a discipline problem in the first half, but that intensity and the way we got back into a game that seemed gone at the break is something precious we will build up the next step in our growth process."
Since his arrival in Parma, the city where he is based, Brunel added to the old, traditional core of the Italian squad with 12 new players, and is building towards a first-ever quarter-final place at the Rugby World Cup in 2015. Italy and Tonga are the only two 'top tier' nations never to advance from the pool stages in the most-prized tournament in the sport, in all 25 years of its history.
"We actually have a group of players that are very used to the international level," continued Brunel, "and during these last 12 months we have added young players that we think possess the qualities to become regular international players and that we are trying to get a chance to gain experience and develop their potential on the biggest stage of professional rugby.
"I guess we need to find another two or three players more to introduce in the squad and start building their confidence, trying to assure them at least 20 caps from now till the start of the next Rugby World Cup."
In November, Benetton Treviso young winger Tommaso Iannone and teammate Francesco Minto, a lock and backrower, were the two new faces to grab the attention of the rugby community.
"I'm pretty happy with the way the entire team played during this autumn but I've been particularly impressed by the two debutants," admitted Brunel. "Iannone showed no fear in a very complicated game in Brescia against a strong and physical Tonga team, working his game with an exceptional speed that will turn to be precious for the team in the months ahead, while Minto became a very useful asset for the team.
"He's that kind of player that has the power and the mobility we needed and that works his body with no fear. He's not a lock or a 'pure' flanker, but showed the ability to play with the same intensity from the beginning to the end of the games he played in. He's not afraid to use his body and is a player that a lot of teams are looking for because he offers some solutions that others can't grant to your gameplan. He's a kind of player like Springbok Danie Rossouw."
The versatile Benetton Treviso tackler was selected for the Six Nations and then the June tour in the Americas but failed to collect his first cap due to injuries. However, he impressed against New Zealand, and won the man-of-the-match award against the Wallabies a week later in Florence.
One of the best performers against Australia was Zebre's Luciano Orquera, who, along with Kris Burton, will be one of the two fly-halves that Brunel is relying on in the foundation stage of the Azzurri World Cup campaign - though he is looking to blood new talents.
"I've been very pleased by the way Luciano played in November, especially against the Wallabies," said the Italy coach. "Both he and Burton have been quite good for the team during this year but they will turn 34 and 35 in 2015 and that obliges us to find other solutions.
"We are looking at the progress made by James Ambrosini but of course we would need players that play that position regularly. Young prospects like Luca Morisi, Alberto Benettin and Paolo Buso, have played No.10 in the past but they should need more games under their belt to develop into solid playmakers and I can understand Zebre and Treviso can't afford to give them a regular go at the moment."
The problem is that Italy require not just a fly-half but also a reliable kicker. "Yes, that's complicated the search for the right candidate because we don't have other options in other positions at the moment, and we can't even think about competing at international level without a kicker," Brunel added.
Thanks to Scotland's autumn nightmare, Italy climbed to tenth position in the IRB rankings and flew back from London with a Rugby World Cup draw that saw them included in the Pool D along with France and Ireland.
Brunel said: "We are happy to have avoided nations such as New Zealand, South Africa and Australia, but to advance at the quarter finals we need to beat top eight teams in the rankings, and that's a tough task. France is one of the greatest countries in the sport and Ireland have a strong tradition.
"We will have a little help by facing both teams in the Six Nations every year, but our chance to grab the historic qualification is down to us and our way to develop our game in the next three years. If we don't keep progressing the way we did during the last twelve months than we have no chance to advance to the quarter finals."
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
"The only thing that will stop this England team from becoming a great team is themselves. They need to ask themselves 'what can we be?'" The Phil Vickery column
The latest Monday Maul looks at the hectic final weekend, the Lions hangover, the superb Mike Brown and the 'selfie'
"At the crux of this England team is a lack of fear, they are not afraid to throw playbooks out of the window." Tom Hamilton reports from Twickenham
"These little deft touches, the nuances O'Driscoll has perfected are what Ireland will miss most." Tom Hamilton on Brian O'Driscoll's final Test in Dublin