Italian rugby is heading into a new era, led by the likes of Seb Negri. Sergio Parisse is no longer the captain, Luca Bigi his successor. Conor O’Shea departed following their 2019 World Cup pool stage exit and the temporary replacement Franco Smith’s time is already underway.
A fresh start is needed for the Azurri and despite 23 straight losses in the Six Nations Seb Negri believes Italian rugby is growing in a bid for success. The Benetton flanker spoke with Robert Rees about the last few months and upcoming plans with Italian rugby.
Just been to see my great aunt who lives in Gloucester.
Told a great story about a rugby player who lived in the flat next door who used to help her get her shopping up and stuff like that, but that he moved to Italy.
Turns out it was Seb Negri when he was at Hartpury!
— Robert Rees (@Rreesrugby) May 11, 2019
Italy ready for new era with Seb Negri and co.
With such drastic changes one could forgive Italy for being a slow recuperation project. But no. Temporary head coach Franco Smith has taken over the reigns whilst a permanent appointment is made and he’s transformed the way Italian rugby looks at itself on the international stage.
“They’re two completely different characters. Conor [O’Shea, former head coach] was an awesome guy and great man manager, but Franco has his own ideas and is also a good person and wants us to excel and get results. He works us hard but with working hard comes good results so two great guys, two great coaches but we’re under Franco now, looking forward and it’s an exciting time.”
Despite the new arrivals and appointments it was the same old disappointment for Italy as they were thumped 42-0 by Wales in their opening 2020 Guinness Six Nations game.
Although a sombre aura surrounds the results Negri remains positive and looks at how he and his fellow teammates can help influence future results.
“It’s great to be playing with Jake [Polledri], he’s a fantastic player and getting better and better. Hopefully he’ll do what he does best,” Negri explained.
“We go back a long way, we were room-mates so spent a lot of time with each other and playing alongside each other, so we’re super excited to get out there.”
Along with Braam Steyn, the new breed of Italian back-rower is well and truly flourishing.
With such variance in the power and individual skill sets of each of the players within the back row it can be hard to balance them in such a busy season. Coming out of a World Cup leaves clubs without players for prolonged periods and extra games means extra time for injuries to occur.
Luckily for Seb Negri and his Benetton teammates their head coach Kieran Crowley manages them to a tee.
“It’s been quite tough coming back from the World Cup, we only had a week to ten days to get into it before heading back into it with our clubs,” explained Negri.
“It’s tough but you have to manage it in your own way, we’re lucky at Benetton that we get managed pretty well. Kieran [Crowley] being head coach is really good at managing us and we’re looking forward to this, we’ve had a tough few weeks in camp with Franco, trained hard and worked hard for each other,” he continued.
— Benetton Rugby 🦁 (@BenettonRugby) January 29, 2020
Pro14 offers scouting advantages
It’s his time with Benetton and for those with Zebre to take advantage of their domestic duties. Playing their Celtic rivals in the Guinness Pro14 every week can help them gauge certain abilities within players.
“We’ve played a lot of these guys in the Pro14 before so we know what they’re about, but it’s a completely different challenge when they’re playing in the Wales/Scotland/Ireland jersey, it’s a tough game and we know it’ll be a challenge but it’ll be exciting.”
There would be an obvious attraction of focusing on their opponents, but Negri insists more work has gone into applying their selves to the game plan.
“We’ve focused a lot on ourselves heading into this one and we’re just keen to showcase ourselves and put a performance together and start this journey under Franco.”
The loss to Wales may have hurt, but the preparation heading into the competition was top quality. They spent six weeks taking on Europe’s elite in the Champions Cup. Facing four-time winners Leinster, Premiership high flyers Northampton and Top14 leaders Lyon.
“You want to play against the best teams in Europe and we’ve done that against Northampton, Lyon and Leinster – they’re all fantastic teams,” Negri said.
“In its own sort of way it prepares you but nothing really compares you for the Six Nations, it’s a tough tournament and we know what to expect. We’ve got our own expectations, but nothing compares to it because it’s a massive step.”
Italian rugby isn’t here for participation medals
Italy haven’t arrived to become the whipping boys and despite a record losing streak, Seb Negri insists upon their want to win.
“We’re not here to make up the numbers, we’re here to win games. It’s been a long time and hopefully in this campaign we can perform and get results, that’s why we play rugby and play sport. We don’t just play to make up the numbers and get beaten. We all want to win and we’re all hungry to win.”
The team goal is to win, but the 25-year-old flanker has his sights set on personal improvements.
“I just want to keep improving and getting better. I’m still learning my trade, just three-four years ago I was at uni,” he said. “I sometimes have to pinch myself as it’s surreal being out here. We play to win and that’s been the message going forward, there’ll be bumps along the way as there always are but we’re excited for this new journey and chapter.”
The new ‘Smith-Bigi’ chapter is underway, but one thing is certain on Negri’s mind. Italian rugby is developing and growing.
“I think it’s definitely growing. That’s the next level, showing that we can compete against the best teams in the world, beating the teams we should be beating. With all respect to them if you look at the World Cup we had a good results against Namibia and Canada, we’ve put those teams away,” says Negri.
“The next challenge is to step up and get some results against the top tier nations, it’s not easy but it’s exciting.”