Burgeoning bunch needed to change ageing face of Italian rugby

You’ll know him as a full-back, but Luke McLean started life in Italian blue as a ten. The temptation is to ask, who hasn’t?

Seven years have swung by since the Aussie-born back first represented the land of his grandmother’s birth against South Africa in Cape Town. The early months of his Test career tell you a lot on why Italy failed to kick on after 15 years of Six Nations.

Pablo Luis Canavosio was his scrum-half that first day. Simon Picone partnered him a week later when they faced Argentina in Cordoba and, come that year’s November internationals, McLean had started the shift to 15 and Pietro Travagli was scrounging at the base of the scrum.

Three caps, three different scrum-halves and two starting tens.

It’s been that way ever since Diego Dominguez hung up his boots in 2003 and Alessandro Troncon joined him in retirement four years later. Nines and tens have come and gone, but few have lasted more than a season or two without being compromised or cut. No player has featured more for Italy since McLean in his time with the squad.

Seventy-three times he has played now and 92 men have soldiered beside him. An astonishing 19 of those have been half-backs, a dozen of them scrum-halves. Ireland, by way of contrast, have used five tens and seven nines in that time.

Tomorrow it will be Tommaso Allan’s turn – but only in the enforced absence of Kelly Haimona – to steer the ship at ten and Edoardo Gori’s job to supply him. Gori is the first Italian nine to surpass 40 caps since Paul Griffen retired, but he could do with a regular sidekick.

“As a player you definitely get to feel comfortable with a team after a while and that allows you to express yourself that bit more on the pitch,” McLean told The Irish Examiner this week.

“You’re not so worried about making errors, you just go out there and play. Whatever comes naturally you just do and, especially for a number ten, that is vital. You need to play on that first instinct because, if you start judging yourself, by the time you get to your second thought process it is too late and you get stuffed.”

There are, as always, no shortage of exceptional forwards in their ranks - think Sergio Parisse, Alessandro Zanni, Martin Castogiovanni, Leonardo Ghrialdini and Mauro Bergamasco - but all those are on the wrong side of 30.

The future post-World Cup is a worry.

“With the new rules, maybe we are not as good as we were on the forward side of things as a few years ago,” said Tommaso Benvenuti, the centre who Brian O’Driscoll suggested was Italy’s next big thing a few years ago.

“I think the game is shifting a little bit more to the backs as well.”

That it is and, though Benvenuti’s career has stalled in recent years, Italy are looking to a bunch of other, younger backs to tune into the changing rhythm of international rugby and take some of the burden off the hands of their grizzled forwards.

Allan and Gori aside, there is considerable hope invested in the Exeter centre Michele Campagnaro and Zebre wing Leonardo Sarto.

The injured centre Luca Morisi is 24, Carlo Canna, the reserve out-half, is only 23. McLean reckons the average age of the back line is no more than 24. Though small in number, they carry large hopes.

“We have some excellent outside backs, centres that we put in the paddock week in and week out and who would back themselves any day of the week one-on-one,” says McLean.

“If we play well, hold onto the ball and make some breaks then the more the staff and the forwards will let us play. So, it is all on us. The way the rules are going you have to go down that path. If you can hold onto that ball for phase after phase then defences will crack sooner or later, so that is the only way you can go ahead and we are trying to turn that into reality.”

Some day Italy will find themselves with a pack as good as its backs and vice versa.

That day will not be tomorrow, however. It doesn’t look like being any time soon either.

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