Italy’s 22-21 historic win over Wales in Cardiff in the final round of the Six Nations was huge for rugby in the country. In ending a 36-game losing run in the competition it helped to quieten down some of the external noise from commentators insisting the Azzurri should be relegated but, more importantly, was the belief and confidence it instilled in the players.

From that moment, there have been more highs, and some lows, notably the first-ever win over Australia and the defeat to Georgia. While the second-half blowout against South Africa in their final Autumn Nations Series test was a disappointing way to finish the year, there is no disguising the fact Italy have moved on apace under former All Blacks full-back Kieran Crowley.

Using the World Rugby Men’s Rankings powered by Capgemini as a metric of improvement, Italy have climbed two places to 12th and gained 5.9 rating points on the back of five wins in 2022 – their best return in a calendar year since they managed six wins in 2007.

“We are pretty pleased with how we performed over the Autumn. I thought we made some improvement in some areas with how we want to play etc. but there is still a long way to go,” is the New Zealander’s grounded take on the situation.

“You’ve got to put yourselves in positions to win matches and get over the line and that was the case against Wales. We got a lot of confidence from that and the players now know that when they get in those positions now they can do it again.”

A way of life

When Paolo Garbisi converted Edoardo Padovani's try, set up by Ange Capuozzo’s stunning break, to break Wales’ hearts with the last act of the game back in March, the young Italian fly-half sunk to his knees and broke down in tears of joy. And there were similar outpourings of emotion in Florence in November when they broke their duck against the Wallabies at the 19th attempt, again by the narrowest of margins.

“Wherever you go and whatever team you are involved in, you have got to embrace their DNA, so to speak, and the Italians are passionate people,” said Crowley, who moved to Italy to coach Benetton in 2016.

“If they have success, they are going to show that emotion, it’s a way of life for them. There was a lot of emotion, and it was great to be a part of it.

“There had been so much negativity around their results, and the players feel that. So I embraced the fact they enjoyed that success. As a coach, you get satisfaction out of seeing those people achieve something. They were pretty poignant moments.”

Discipline under pressure has never previously been known as part of Italian rugby’s DNA but under Crowley, the passionate side of the Azzurri’s game appears to have been channelled in the right way.

The Azzurri had the lowest penalty count of any of the established nations in the Autumn Nations Series and it takes something pretty special, like the Capuozzo wonder try, to get them worked up once they cross the white line.

Clear identity

Crowley, the 19-cap former international, has also got everyone pulling in the same direction and created a playing style that seems to suit the players he has at his disposal.

Also, in Michele Lamaro, the man Crowley immediately installed as captain on taking over from Franco Smith in November 2021, he has unearthed not only a gem of a flanker but also a class leader.

“We needed to find a way to play, we had to find an identity, and by an identity I mean we had to be known for the way we play and what we bring to the table,” he said.

“If you do that consistently, you get some credibility and respect. That’s been our driving force. You have got to keep that moving forward and it is not for us to say we have got credibility and respect now.

“We have just got to keep believing in our process and what we can do. If you get better and better at what you do, the results will come your way.

“It was more about us getting on the same page so that’s what we have been working at.”

Having a crack

With bright young talents such as Capuozzo on one wing and Pierre Bruno on the other, Italy pose much more of an attacking threat under Crowley.

In the 14 tests under him, Italy have scored 302 points and 24 tries, whereas in the 14 tests that preceded him and followed on from Rugby World Cup 2019, they managed just 167 points and 20 tries, and the latter tally includes the ‘bonus-point win’ for the cancelled Autumn Nations Cup game against Fiji.

“If you are playing a team a lot lower than you, you can get away with playing 10-man rugby and going through those sort of motions but if you want to win the big games and I am talking in the big competitions, like World Cups and Six Nations, you have got to play to win games rather than try and keep the score down, so we needed to become more of an attacking threat.

“You have got to play to your strengths and you have got to have a crack, you have got to enjoy it so we’re developing a game that we think suits us better.

“You have got to be able to have the players to do that and that’s the process we have been going through in the last year and a half.”

Lamaro, still only 24, has started all but one of the 14 tests in the Crowley era and has been captain in them all.

“He is a young leader and he has certainly grabbed it by the scruff of the neck, and he does a lot of work behind the scenes,” Crowley said.

“He has got a lot of support around him. We have got an outstanding coaching group with Marius Goosen and Andrea Moretti, and the whole management team who supports that.

“We are going in the same direction and he has jumped on board with that, and he has got some good boys around him too, who are helping him.

“He is an emotional leader but he also leads by actions and the boys are following him because he is putting in some good performances on the paddock.

“He is still learning and my one concern is that we have still got to take a little bit of that pressure off him because it is a pretty hard position to be in.

“If your team is not winning, there is a lot of pressure from outside sources, and now that we have had a couple of reasonable results, the expectation is going to be a lot more so it is up to us as a management group and as a team to help him through those periods and shelter him from some of the stuff that still allows him to still be who he is.

“Michele is learning to share the leadership around, and I think it is very important your leaders do that. There are a number of players who have been there the same time as him and they are going through it together.”

Loving life

When Crowley first came to Italy to coach Benetton, having previously been in charge of the Canadian national men’s team, he never envisaged he would be in the position he is in now.

However, his success in leading the Treviso-based franchise to the Rainbow Cup and their first United Rugby Championship play-off appearance put him at the front of the queue for the top coaching job in the country.

A lack of depth in the key half-back positions is one of his medium to longer-term concerns but, for now, Italian rugby is enjoying watching his team, and Crowley is enjoying being in the country.

“With the pace of life, the scenery and the focus they have on the family, it’s a lifestyle that’s very enjoyable.

“I came to coach Benetton but I really enjoyed it, fell in love with the country and it’s ended up in this position. Italy is a great country to be in.”