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How Italy revolutionised their youth system to produce a golden generation – and what Australia can learn from it

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28th March, 2024
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Roar Rookie
28th March, 2024
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They used to be the laughing stock of the Six Nations. Winners of the wooden spoon 18 times in 24 years. Never escaping from the pool stage in the Rugby World Cup. Never higher than eighth in the world rankings.

If you think Australia is in a hopeless situation then you should consider the position of Federazione Italiana Rugby president Alfredo Gavazzi in 2016. Italy is a big country – nearly 60 million people – but football is everything there. Rugby is tiny, behind even basketball, volleyball, tennis, motorsport and cycling. They have just two professional clubs – Benetton and Zebre – which are both in the North and had never finished in the top half of their league.

So how do you think Gavazzi got Italy to their first ever break-even season in the Six Nations?  Two wins, two losses and a draw. All achieved by a young team nowhere near its peak, with cohorts who have done even better at under 18 and under 20 levels ready to follow in their footsteps.

 

FIR President Alfredo Gavazzi attends an Italian Rugby Federation press conference ahead of 2012 RBS Six Nationsat Stadio Olimpico on January 10, 2013 in Rome, Italy. (Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images)

FIR President Alfredo Gavazzi. (Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images)

CREATING THE TEAM

Gavazzi’s first move wasn’t that different from Rugby Australia’s current head honchos. Just as Australia has brought in successful been-there-done-that leaders like Peter Horne, David Nuciafora and Joe Schmidt, Gavazzi brought in the likes of Connor O’Shea to coach the national team, Kieran Crowley to coach their top professional club and Stephen Aboud to set up a new Youth Development system. He also kept some like-minded individuals such as Head of Grassroots Daniele Pacini and Technical Director Franco Ascione.

It was a very integrated team, O’Shea working closely with the others. Pacini’s grassroots were producing more and more players, including the young prospects who went through Aboud’s academies. Most of the best players from the academies were later introduced to professional club rugby by Crowley, who eventually took over O’Shea’s role and blooded them in the Test arena. It was a seamless team overseeing the national system from grassroots to elite.

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IRISH KNOW HOW


You might not have heard of Stephen Aboud but along with Pacini he was the most important of the lot. For it was he who set up an entirely new elite development structure in Italy, which soon produced Italy’s most golden generation, the romantic heroes of the 2024 Six Nations.

Aboud had just the right experience for the role. He had already set up Ireland’s first rugby academy, at a time when they were the laughingstock of the then Five Nations, winning just eight matches throughout the 1990s. For 20 years he played a key role in turning the worst set-up in the comp into the best. First as the Elite Player Development Manager and finally as Head of Technical Director. Could he lead a similar transformation in Italy from an even lower base?

Aboud’s first contact with Italian rugby was straight out of the movies. He was summoned to a hotel suite, where Gavazzi wrote his job description on a napkin. Aboud duly signed the napkin, shook the president’s hand and was hired on the spot. “All that was missing was the Godfather theme” he said later.

CONCENTRATING ON YOUTH DEVELOPMENT

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It was clear that Aboud’s role would be crucial. “First and foremost you look after getting your own systems right. Our challenge is not playing numbers – they have grown four-fold in the last ten years (bouquets to Pacini.) It is getting control of a young player when we spot him. We haven’t got that right yet,” O’Shea said. 

For both Irishmen, that control of the young players was key. Aboud was swiftly told that the second tier clubs below Benetton and Zebre would never change, so he revolutionised what he could control – the academy system.

He and Ascione knew that in the existing twelve academies, both the playing and coaching talent were spread too thin. They picked the best 130 under 18 players and concentrated them into four regional academies, along with the best possible staff. At under 20s level this was whittled down to the top 35 in one academy. All of this was residential, with the players getting the best possible input five days a week.

The rest is history – and while these academies’ players are still in the system Italy will have an even brighter future.

IF ITALY CAN DO IT WHY CAN’T AUSTRALIA?


It’s important to remember what Italy did and didn’t do. They didn’t spend lots of money on the professional game, trying to take on bigger codes, increase their top tier footprint through the country or pay lots of elite players. Losing players is a fact of life for them – Head of Grassroots rugby Daniele Pacini recently reported that Italy had lost 40% of its 13-17 year olds.

In fact they didn’t waste time on changing the professional structure because that wasn’t where the battle could be won. Instead they focused their time and money where it could make the most impact.

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Those academies cost just €400,000 ($A662,000) each per annum, a fraction of the cost of an extra top tier club. Likewise, their focus on grassroots rugby paid off, broadening the base of their pyramid as their academies raised the potential apex. As a result, even their two professional clubs have improved, with Benetton winning the Pro 14 Rainbow Cup, getting second in the Scottish/Italian Shield and making the semi final of the European Challenge Cup.

I’m not saying for a moment that Australia should go back to two top tier teams. What I’m saying is that we write so many articles (myself included) and debate so much about how to change the professional club structure while ignoring the parts of the pyramid that can positively impact everything.

You can get game-changing transformation without the cost, if you invest in grassroots and employ high quality systems and people in your youth development, while maintaining the quality of a small number of top tier clubs. If Italy on such a meagre budget and minority domestic following can improve this much, then so can Australia.

I’m hopeful that Rugby Australia has taken the first steps in the right direction after decades of poor priorities, although I’m still concerned that there is too much that is left to the states instead of being centralised. Horne, Nuciafora and Schmidt are great appointments, while the recent review has some sensible recommendations such as:
• “…A national high performance and leadership strategy that prioritises development and acquisition of technical experts and Rugby leaders.”
• “…A customised national approach to leadership development across coaches, players, staff and executive.”
• “…An integrated model to optimise performance across Super Rugby and national teams.”
These are long haul priorities that will take years to bear fruit at Test level, but we’ve seen where decades of quick fixes and short term appointments has taken Australian rugby. It’s time to follow a path that has succeeded in such different countries as Ireland and Italy.

EPILOGUE


Gavazzi died in 2022 and was replaced by a new president whose power base is in the second tier clubs that Aboud had been warned would never change. Aboud and Crowley have been let go and the academy system dismantled. Players and staff are now dispersed in multiple academies attached to these clubs and simply don’t get anywhere near the same quality or quantity of contact time.

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In a way it’s perhaps reminiscent of what happened when John O’Neill was in charge of the ARU, sacking Dick Marks, disbanding his structures and decentralising control to the states. We know how that went.

According to Aboud “I would say now that the under 20 squad that’s currently playing is probably lacking 50 per cent of the opportunity to develop that their predecessors had. And within two years, it will be 100 per cent…. The attitude was there, the commitment was there, but the precision and effectiveness wasn’t.”

Aboud is now the High Performance Director at Rugby Canada and it will be fascinating to see whether that nation improves over the next ten years… and what happens in Italy when the young players he developed start to retire.

“I always use the analogy of wine makers and wine drinkers. If you’re busy drinking wine and not making it, you’re going to run out of bottles.”

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