Kieran Crowley has had to bide his time for his first match as head coach of Italy.

The former All Black was appointed as Franco Smith’s successor in May, but the cancellation of a summer tour to New Zealand resulted in a six-month gap between him getting the job and making his debut against his native New Zealand in Rome on Saturday.  

Not that it has done much to dampen the 60-year-old’s enthusiasm, as he recalls the moment he marked his return to the international scene, having previously led Canada from 2008 to 2016.

“I was excited. It’s international rugby, isn’t it?” Crowley told World Rugby.

“I had five years at Benetton Rugby and they were moving in a different direction. I’m excited because there are some really good young players coming through here in Italy. I was excited about the challenge of the Six Nations.

“We’re always playing teams in the top 10 or 11 in the world. When you look at the European countries – France, England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales – they are all well up there, so you’re playing at a really high level.”

During a five-year spell with Benetton, Crowley led the Treviso-based club to the playoffs of the Pro14, becoming the first Italian side to do so, before winning their first major honour with the Rainbow Cup earlier this year.

“It was a case of knowing Italian rugby I suppose, because I’ve been here for five years, and hoping I would make a difference so when I leave it’s in a better place,” he said.

“Our results haven’t been great over the last few years and there’s only one way we can go really.”

A debut to remember

Crowley’s debut in the Italian capital will provide the most spectacular – if daunting – spectacle he could have imagined.

The 1987 Rugby World Cup winner and former New Zealand Under-19s coach knows a thing or two about the All Blacks.

But he tempered expectations of the Azzurri claiming their first ever win in this fixture, this being Italy’s first Test of the Autumn Nations Series, but recent Rugby Championship winners New Zealand’s 13th match since July.

“New Zealand have been together for the last four months basically and had a lot of games,” Crowley said.

“I met some of the guys in this team for the first time last week, so it’s a case of needing time together.

“I would hope that by the end of these November tests we’ve been able to embed our game plan, the way we want to play, and we’ve created a base for moving forward.

“We’ve got no grand expectations around this first one, it being such a challenge, I would hope we can go out and perform with credibility and earn a bit of respect for it.”

Age is no barrier

Italy face Argentina and Uruguay before the end of the month before focusing on the 2022 Six Nations, where Crowley will be tasked with trying to record a first tournament victory since 2015.

Attention will inevitably soon turn to the 2023 Rugby World Cup, where Italy share Pool A with two of their autumn opponents, New Zealand and Uruguay, as well as France and an African qualifier.

“We get these three games now, then our next competition is the Six Nations, and then we’re only a year out from the World Cup,” Crowley said.

“We still need to identify players, give players an opportunity. It’s a balancing act at the moment and we just have to deal with it.

“Hopefully we will be able to give guys opportunities to put their hands up to get some results, which hopefully we’ll be able to do at some stage.”

There is a lot of work to be done in a short time, but Crowley has been encouraged by what he has seen from players old and new.

“You look at the Under-20s, they have been competitive in the Six Nations. The Under-18s have had some good wins lately. These players have to take the next step and we have to offer them the ability to take that step and have a system that gives them every opportunity,” he said.

Azzurri great Sergio Parisse, the country’s most-capped player, has not featured for the national team since the 2019 Rugby World Cup, but Crowley hasn’t ruled out the return of Toulon's 38-year-old number eight.

“I watched his first three games for Toulon and he played really well but unfortunately he broke his hand and had an operation,” he said.

“He is due back to play in November I think, but certainly if his form’s up to it we’ll be considering him for the Six Nations.

“If he was available for this November period, we would have certainly had a look at him for that because I was impressed by the way he was playing when the injury happened.

“It doesn’t matter how old you are, if you’re 35 or 38, 19 or 20, if your form warrants it you’re going to be picked.”

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