With the World Cup well and truly behind us, we turn our attention to the European Champions Cup which got underway this weekend. As we did last year, during the Pool stages of the competition we take a look at the efforts of the teams from a particular country each weekend as we try to get an idea of how their Six Nations campaigns may unfold. This weekend we start with Italy, which makes it a short post as they only have one team, Benetton Treviso, representing them in the competition. Treviso took on Munster at Fortress Thomond Park, which always meant they were going to be up against it in one of Irish rugby’s strongholds.
Munster vs Treviso
Final Score – Munster 32/Treviso 7
Thomond Park, Limerick
In fairness to Treviso, despite their woeful record in this year’s PRO 12 competition, they came to Ireland full of intent this weekend and determined to play. To give them credit, despite the appalling conditions of driving rain and howling winds, they acquitted themselves well in the first half and surely must have felt quite pleased heading into the changing rooms trailing Munster by only 3 points at 10-7 down. However, it was a second half performance which sadly epitomised the gulf between the sides and the struggles Italian sides are having in European competitions.
From the outset this was always going to be a challenging game for both sides, as the Munster faithful huddled in the stands at Thomond Park while the elements sought to frustrate any chances of a fast paced running game. The wind swirled around the park causing any kind of kicking to often be a complete game of chance. Meanwhile the slippery ground and wet conditions made ball handling skills come at a premium and it was here that Munster clearly had the edge over their Italian counterparts. Munster wisely chose to keep the ball close for much of the game and resort to driving mauls, while the commendable but often adventurous play by Treviso was not backed up by the skill set needed for the prevailing conditions.
Treviso, while having all sorts of problems in execution when it came to their attacking game did manage to put up a strong defensive showing in the first half despite the appalling conditions and the fact that Munster were dominating the territory and possession statistics. Fortunately for Treviso the conditions were not helping Munster either and a handling error cost Munster one try while some superb last-ditch defence by Treviso caused Munster’s Keith Earls to miss what would have been another certain five points.
However, as the conditions took their toll both physically and mentally as Treviso lost their Captain and key source of inspiration in flanker Alessandro Zanni in the first half, you knew it was going to turn into a long eighty minutes for the Italians. Furthermore, as the first half ended crucial lapses in discipline, which only got worse in the second half, would make life even harder for the Italians. In short, the Italians were outmuscled and in the second half completely outplayed by a Munster team familiar with what it takes to get results in this competition. There was something to cheer about for the Italians when South African number eight Abraham Steyn, in a show of individual brilliance charged down a kick from Munster’s fly half Ian Keatley and showed some impressive football skills as he kicked the loose ball through the posts and managed to just get enough downward pressure on it as player and ball slid out of play. However, apart from some good work in defence in the first half and Steyn’s solo heroics there wasn’t much to get excited about from a Treviso perspective.
While it is still early days in the tournament after only just one round, given Treviso’s performance in the PRO 12 and the fact that they are sitting firmly at the bottom of the table in that competition, it would appear unlikely that there are going to be any miracles in the near future in terms of an Italian Renaissance in European Champions Cup rugby. With Treviso having to face England’s Leicester in the next round of the European Champions Cup the task is only going to get progressively harder. This sadly will only raise once more the questions regarding the merit and justification of an automatic placement of Italian teams in the tournament as opposed to teams from emerging European rugby powers such as Georgia and Romania in particular. On the basis of what we saw this weekend and in the PRO12 so far this season, unless some dramatic changes happen soon it will be increasingly hard for sides like Treviso or other Italian teams to justify their place in an increasingly competitive European landscape. I am not saying that Italy is without talent or hope for the future as both are there, it just doesn’t seem to be being managed properly. For the sake of Italy’s place in bigger tournaments like the Six Nations, one can only hope that there are more answers than questions and sooner rather than later!