AT first glance, there could be no more difficult a start to life in the Magners League than what lies ahead for Aironi on Saturday.
The Italian franchise visit Musgrave Park for what will be their first competitive game ever – a daunting prospect for any European team, never mind a scratch side that has been cobbled together over the summer.
Try telling that, however, to their Italian international flanker Josh Sole who, despite being sidelined with injury, can’t wait for Saturday to come.
“Does it get much bigger?” asks Sole. “In Italy Munster and Leinster are probably the two best known Magners League teams and to start against Munster over there is going to be quite intimidating but also a good challenge. The boys have a lot of respect for the Munster guys and there’s a little bit of the fear factor as well, but the Italians generally react quite well to fear.”
Made up of an alliance of Italian clubs from the Lombardy region including the likes of Viadana and the two Parma clubs, Aironi sound like an outfit that will be right at home with their Irish, Scottish and Welsh counterparts. It now seems like an age ago that the IRFU made the decision to concentrate the pool of professional players around the Irish provinces back in 1995. With that in mind, Sole is convinced that the creation of the two Italian superclubs and Magners League entry will do something similar for Italian rugby.
“It’s going to make a massive difference,” he contends. “It’s not just guys like me but for the young guys as well. Playing in this league week in, week out against this kind of level of players is going to be hard but fantastic as well. You’re playing at such a high level and at such speed that you can only improve. Your confidence is going to climb every week and the boys are going to believe in themselves a bit more. And obviously the public are going to believe in Italian rugby a bit more. It’s only going to close the gap further.”
That there is still a sizeable gap is the biggest worry about the two Italian super-clubs’ accession into what has hitherto been a strictly Celtic affair. Both Aironi and Treviso have been slow to reveal what their targets are for the season, preferring instead to talk about taking things on a game by game basis. To boot, Aironi are effectively a scratch side, having signed 18 players in the close season, so no-one quite knows what to expect when they travel to Musgrave Park on Saturday.
Sole, however, dismisses the suggestion that there will be any ‘bedding-in’ period at Aironi.
“It won’t actually be that difficult because under the Italian national system with the national team, the A team and the Under 21’s, we’re all quite involved with each other a lot and we all have the same training patterns and training styles. A lot of guys who have come to Aironi I’ve played with or against over the last couple of years. No one’s a stranger at Aironi.
“I’ve been asked a few times about the fear factor. A lot of people are of the opinion that we might start well and fade off towards the end. I don’t believe that’s going to be the case. We’ve got good staff, good coaches and good systems in place at Aironi. Everyone’s being looked after really well and even if it’s a long season with the international games thrown in there as well. I think we’ll do alright this season and we should be able to reach our goals.”
While Aironi arrive in Cork as something of an unknown quantity, a scratching of the surface reveals a squad bursting with Six Nations experience, especially in the tight five. Internationals Marco Bortolami, Fabio Ongaro and Salvatore Perugini have returned home to substantially strengthen the armoury and there are 19 Italian internationals in all to choose from. Fort-six times capped Sole won’t be there this weekend because of the wrist ligament injury he sustained after the Six Nations but even so, Aironi should have enough class up front to give Munster a real examination.
He adds: “I think we might surprise some of the opposition supporters. I hope that a lot of the opposition players will have respect for us. We are obviously a little bit below where they are at the moment but we’ve got some quality players who should get some results for us.
“Most people see us as being in the bottom half but there are a few believers that think we’ll win more than the odd game here and there and win at home against some of the lower teams.”
Sole is cagey about whether he believes that extends to Saturday. Win, lose or draw, however, it promises to be a landmark match against a team he rates as one of the most famous in world rugby.
“Rugby in Italy is probably the fourth or fifth best sport so you’d have soccer, volleyball and basketball in front of it but most people who know a little bit about rugby know Munster. Everyone knows about the red jersey and the crowds full of red. Definitely everyone knows Munster.”
What’s the betting we’ll all know Aironi come Saturday evening?
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