The Italian rugby union team suffered five heavy losses in the 2017 Six Nations tournament, cementing them to the bottom of the table and their 12th last place finish since joining the tournament in 2000. Dejected and defeated a dozen times in a row, their place in the tournament is under renewed scrutiny. There is talk of introducing a system of promotion and relegation to the Six Nations.
The national team of Georgia, backed by a billionaire former president and 50,000 strong crowds, would love to get stuck into European rugby’s most prestigious competition. Might a 13th wooden spoon prove to be particularly unlucky for Italian rugby?
The “winning” of a wooden spoon itself is an old Cambridge University tradition, with actual spoons up to 5ft long presented to the mathematics student with the lowest passing exam marks. The idea lives on (in figurative form) most famously through rugby’s Six Nations, with the last placed team said to win it. It is one of many traditions to be found in the proud history of this closed competition, which was founded back in 1883.
Yet in Italy, rugby is not part of the tradition. More of a footballing powerhouse, much of rugby’s development has been driven by foreign coaches with expertise apparently ringfenced for those playing at the highest levels. A small number of the national team players ply their trade domestically, while poor standards at club sides have led some to suggest that Italy simply doesn’t measure up.
Taking a wider view, we must consider that should the men’s team not compete in the Six Nations, the parallel women’s and under 20’s tournaments would also suffer. While the younger team have similarly struggled to compete, their female counterparts have fared a little better with just three wooden spoons and previous wins against France, Wales and Scotland.
As a member of Scotland Women’s Six Nations squad, I have played in two championship games in Italy. Their support beats most other women’s games for enthusiasm and size, with only France boasting bigger crowds. And although rugby may not be part of the Italian DNA, there is a growing and strongly passionate fan base.
Losing a place in the Six Nations would be a step backwards for a country previously held up as a success story in growing the game from humble origins. Georgia have pushed for consideration to join in, but how do we know that history won’t repeat itself and exacerbate the same issues, with Italian rugby then almost certainly left in a downward spiral? What about Georgia’s youth development, domestic game and women’s set-up? Growing, but still far behind the Tier 1 nations (the Six Nations teams plus Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Argentina).
Results wise, Scotland Women are no strangers to Italy’s plight. A lack of any points in the Six Nations from 2010 to 2016 paints a comparably bleak picture. But look a little closer and you’ll see the tide is turning. The appointment of a first full time coach, enhanced support structures for developing players, and more time and work together have led to Scotland’s first test win in seven years and a fourth place finish in the table, when many had written us off. Quality coaching, support and time are fundamental.
Clearly it’s no fun for any player, team or fan to lose every match, and in elite sport we compete to win. However back in the men’s game, this year Italy set up perhaps the most enthralling match of the Six Nations championship, baffling England with their cunning tactics. This hint at variation and disruptive thinking in coaching was a shining light in an otherwise gloomy Italian campaign. Why rely on a nonexistent tradition when you can disrupt and innovate?
In coaching, innovation is the key to new knowledge, and a willingness for disruptive thinking opens the door to change and progress. Research shows that being open-minded to new ideas, experimenting, adapting and reflecting fosters learning and pushes coaching forwards. The Italian coach, Conor O'Shea, shows the beginnings of this at the top level. Work needs to be done to shape the culture throughout the Italian coaching system. Relying on traditional methods, set piece to set piece, transmission of accepted knowledge, has not worked.
Coaching and quality coach development at each level of sport is a fundamental pillar of international success. In Italy, 50% of elite sport coaches rate their development opportunities as poor or insufficient. Italy’s developing players are limited by coaching shackled by old ideas and approaches. It’s a long game, but these are the things that can be improved to build a positive learning culture and cultivate success.
Back in the 19th century, Cambridge’s wooden spoon-winning maths students still passed with an “entirely appropriate” degree, no doubt going on to make useful contributions to society. Kicking a “failing” Italian side out of the Six Nations is not the solution. At the heart of it all is coaching and domestic development – parting with tradition to gradually change the status quo and keep on trying to avoid that wooden spoon.