‘The big thing about New Zealand coaches is that they are very open’

WHILE MANY OF us on the outside complain about Italian rugby having offered very little to the Guinness Pro12 and the Six Nations, there has also been an acceptance within the halls of the Federazione Italiana Rugby that change is necessary.

Conor O’Shea has come on board as the national team head coach, hoping to lead the resurgence. Mike Catt has joined him as attack coach, while Steve Aboud has been pinched from the IRFU to oversee Italy’s rugby development programme.

Leinster clash with Treviso in Dublin tomorrow. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Losing Aboud is a blow for Irish rugby, but perhaps a good thing in the longer term. A better Italy will benefit everyone.

Promising moves at the top of the tree, but what about the foundations? The Pro12 issue has been a glaring one for Italy in recent times, with Zebre and Treviso having occupied the bottom two spots of the league table for three years running now.

Treviso – dead bottom of the Pro12 last season – have looked to a New Zealander to help remedy their problems, with Kieran Crowley’s first competitive game as head coach coming against Leinster at the RDS tomorrow evening [KO 7.35pm].

The former All Black fullback’s previous job saw him spend eight years in charge of Canada’s national team, a development challenge that makes Crowley ideally suited for the task at hand in Treviso.

54-year-old Crowley, who enjoyed two years with Parma Rugby as a player from 1982 to 1984, is acutely aware that the pressure on Treviso and Zebre to start performing in the Pro12 is always increasing.

Along with new director of rugby Antonio Pavanello, the 33-year-old ex-Italy second row, Crowley is positive about Treviso finally delivering.

“I think there has been a feeling that we need to contribute more; Italy wants to,” says Crowley.

“When you’re at the bottom like Treviso and Zebre have been, in the bottom group all the way through, you get into the habit of being there and get into the habit of not performing. I don’t feel that pressure personally because I haven’t been there, but collectively there is a pressure that we need to contribute more.

Crowley has a demanding job on his hands. Source: Adam Davy

“There’s even a pressure that we need to contribute more by the style of play I think. Hopefully, that brings results.”

Crowley’s mention of the losing habit is particularly pertinent, with the perception in certain quarters of the Pro12 being that the Italian sides offer up a relatively straightforward win when the opposition pressures them enough.

The 79 tries conceded by Treviso last season, 22 more than any side barring Zebre [who let in an incredible 99], are an illustration of a lack of mental application.

Crowley visited Treviso briefly back in February to get an early sense of what needed to change within the club, before getting to work properly in May. One of the first things he noted was the need for a better squad culture and more “accountability.”

“Culture is massive,” says Crowley. “The values you create off the pitch create your team values and that creates performance on the field.

“You’ve got to work for one another. You’ve got to respect the game. The game is bigger than any of us. If we went tomorrow, somebody would take our place.

“Little things like that can contribute into how you go about your job on the field. If you respect things and have the right sort of values, you might not give away a penalty at a certain time, for example, because you understand that respect for your teammates.

“It’s about building the unity and being sure you’re all pulling in the same direction. If you can create a good group with good actions all the time, you can keep the group together.”

Crowley led Canada at last year’s World Cup. Source: Mike Egerton

Crowley’s early experiences with Treviso also allowed him to identify that a shift in their style of play was required. The Kiwi says he sees rugby as an entertainment business, stressing the need for players and fans alike to enjoy Treviso’s game plan.

“Coming to Treviso, I thought they possibly sometimes played not to lose and didn’t play to win. That’s something I’m trying to get across – we’ve got to play to win. Even if you’re up by a point with 15 minutes to go, you’ve still got to play to win.

“If you play not to lose, you’re going to lose. There’s got to be a shift in thinking, which is something we’re working on.”

The tactical shift to a more expansive and entertaining brand of rugby is going to take time for Crowley and his coaching staff, but he has the required patience.

Technically, his squad are not where he needs them to be and, again, the former Taranaki coach underlines the need to build lasting habits.

“We’ve got some real work to do,” says Crowley. “Italian rugby in the past, and it was the same in Canada, had been built on a mentality around the scrum and the emotional side of things. It’s almost like a false bravado; ‘We’re going to run over the top of you.’

“Instead of doing a bit of footwork to the side and winning an advantage line, ‘We’ll run straight into you and we’ll have a big smash. We won’t get over the advantage line, we’ll both fall down, but f*ck it, I ran into you.’ We’ve got to change that thinking.

“It was interesting because we’ve done a lot of work since I’ve been here on those little things. We played Grenoble in the pre-season and we didn’t have a lot of pressure on us, because they had a second-string team, and things went well.

“But then we played Leicester the week after and suddenly we reverted back to the old way. It’s going to be a slow process.”

Crowley speaks confidently on the challenges ahead of him with Treviso, but this will be perhaps the biggest test of his coaching career yet.

Alessandro Zanni captains Treviso this season. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Capped by the All Blacks 19 times, Crowley featured in the 1987 and 1991 World Cups, before moving into professional coaching with his local province, Taranaki, in 1998.

He led the New Zealand U19s to trophy glory at the 2007 World Championship in Ireland and then joined Canada as head coach for an eight-year period that took in the 2011 and 2015 World Cups.

Crowley is the latest in a long line of Kiwi coaches to land in this part of the world, with his old friend Joe Schmidt currently in charge of Ireland, former NPC rival Vern Cotter with Scotland, and Dave Rennie to join the Glasgow Warriors next season.

New Zealand produces excellent coach after excellent coach, and it’s one of the reasons they are the greatest rugby nation in the world.

“New Zealand has got a pretty good coach development system,” says Crowley. “They have a lot of conferences. You go to a lot of them and there’s actually no rugby people in the presenters.

“Some of the best things I’ve been to is if, say, you go to a conference and you hear from New Zealand netball or other sports. You hear about how they build culture and how they do things. You might take one or two lessons from it.

“You look on the technical side of things and [All Blacks assistant coach] Wayne Smith, to me, is an outstanding coach. You’ve got guys like Dave Rennie, who’s coming over to Glasgow, and I enjoy their way of playing.

“Neil Barnes [his former Canada assistant] is an assistant coach for the Chiefs and I have a lot of respect for his vision and the way he does things. There’s a whole load of other New Zealand coaches who might not go on to great things, but you just chew the fat with them.”

Crowley must lift Treviso up the Pro12 table. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Key to the consistent production line of quality Kiwi coaches is sharing, says Crowley.

“One of the best coaching things I ever went to was by John Mitchell, who was Waikato coach at the time. I was the Taranaki coach, so we were ‘in opposition’ maybe, but you go in and we’re there for four days and he says, ‘We’re going to go through our [Waikato’s] working week.’ We went through Waikato’s entire working week.

“The big thing about New Zealand coaches is that they are very open. You come in and we’ll open the books for you, but we are open to what you say as well.

“Just because we’re coaching here and you’re coaching there doesn’t mean you don’t have something for us to learn from. That’s an attitude that has really helped New Zealanders.”

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