Michael Bradley begins Zebre mission

Michael Bradley admits it: His Italian isn’t up to much.

“I know ‘molto bene’ is very good, but I need the opposite of that,” he says, laughing.

He’ll get there. It’s only two months since news of his imminent appointment as head coach with what is now the rebranded and hopefully revitalised Zebre Rugby Club began to circulate and half that since the announcement was made public.

Still, communication shouldn’t be a problem.

Not for a man who has had to contend with language barriers with gigs in Georgia and Romania in the recent past and someone who has had to train his ear to unscramble any deep Scottish burrs during his time with Edinburgh.

Any cultural differences in Italy will be curbed by the fact that he is working underneath both Conor O’Shea and Stephen Aboud, the former the national team head coach and the latter an ex-IRFU man who is the Italian union’s technical director.

O’Shea was close to fluent in the lingo within a few months of his arrival in the country, but Bradley is quick to add the rider that his fellow Munsterman had been prepping for the move long before he clocked in for the first day.

The plan is that they, along with Treviso head coach Kieran Crowley, can all sing off the same hymn sheet and introduce the sort of pyramidal structure that can align the amateur, underage, professional club and senior national team.

You can see why Bradley would be an obvious choice in that light. Seven years at Connacht, and two more in Edinburgh, where the national system was intended to be something similar, leave him well-versed as to what’s required.

“It’s not dissimilar,” he says of the Connacht example. “The blueprint is there and the same issues are there, so that is fine. It is grand.”

Aboud’s job is to ensure Italy is producing quality players for the two professional clubs and that the machine runs smoothly, while O’Shea is playing a hands-on role with Treviso and Zebre on a weekly basis, as well as taking the Azzurri.

“It’ll take a couple of years, for sure,” says Bradley. “It’s not going to happen overnight, but you have to get systems in place. If you go back to the start of the Celtic League, Ireland had to make decisions: club versus professional rugby. A lot of discussions [were] going on there and then getting the development side to filter through to the professional sides, so that took a bit of time in Ireland as well. Once you have a structure and a plan, you can work towards it and Stevie has that.”

It’s not long ago since Connacht were swimming around the bottom of what was still the PRO12 bowl with the two Italian sides, but talk of any similar scoot up from the depths to a title challenge are thin on the ground.

“Something has to change, but I feel it is changing since Conor arrived and Michael arrived and coach Crowley in Treviso,” says captain Tomasso Castello. “They have brought a lot of international experience and that is what we needed.

“There are a lot of good players, but we should have someone who tells us what to do instead of just try to play our rugby. We should not copy, but listen to these people who have more experience than us and try to do that. That is the only way to improve.”

And boy, do they need improving. Zebre have finished bottom of the league in four out of the five seasons since joining the competition and Treviso haven’t fared a whole pile better. The pair won nine games out of a possible 44 last term.

The arrivals of men like O’Shea should pay dividends, but it is worth noting that Bradley’s Connacht and Edinburgh sides inhabited the lower reaches of the table in his time there and that Crowley’s Canada didn’t exactly make giant leaps forward either.

That isn’t to disparage either man so much as highlight how difficult meaningful progress can be from such lowly origins, though Bradley points to the presence in his squad of 14 Italian internationals and a promising batch of national U20s as reasons for optimism.

They will need it for the road ahead, starting with Saturday’s visit to Ospreys.


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