We need meritocracy- Italy in the European Rugby Competitions

tIt would be fair to say that the common opinion is that Champions Cup rugby should be earned on a basis of meritocracy, not from the country in which you play your rugby. Having the Italian team in your pool can often make it easier to qualify from your pool as best second place- they’re the easiest shot you’ll get at 5 points in what is a very tough competition.

Treviso this year are the Italian side in the lower tier, the Challenge Cup and look to have taken some positives from it. This weekend they went into their game with Glasgow Warriors on a run of three straight wins and it took a last gasp try from replacement stand-off, Rory Clegg, to win the game for the Scots.

Challenge Cup Rugby 2016/17

As just mentioned, Treviso have had a relatively successful year in Europe with wins’ home and away to Bayonne boosting their confidence. They currently sit third in their pool, below Gloucester Rugby and La Rochelle. However, in terms of Italian rugby, two wins anywhere is a good result and they can certainly take confidence going into their remaining pool games. They most likely won’t qualify, but they won’t have been the whipping boys of the pool, which will please head coach, Kieran Crowley. In that time, Zebre have been on the end of some damming defeats, none more so than their 84-14 loss to Wasps.

Despite not beating Glasgow, wins against Zebre and a losing bonus point to the Warriors aren’t to be sniffed at. It seems that the confidence from wins in Europe has translated to the league. This has happened elsewhere, as Premiership strugglers Bristol, find themselves on a four-win unbeaten streak across all competitions.

Challenge Cup Rugby 2015/16

In the 2015/16 season it was the turn of Zebre to play in the Challenge Cup and they enjoyed a similarly positive campaign. Wins against Worcester Warriors, home and away and a win against La Rochelle, topped off with a losing bonus point to Gloucester saw the Italians finish second in their pool. Sadly, that hadn’t accrued enough points to qualify for the knock-out stages, but it was a solid display. Benetton Treviso managed to accrue zero points from Pool 4 of the Champions Cup.

They backed this up in the Pro12 with a win over Italian rivals Benetton Treviso, with a narrow 12-16 loss to Munster another notable performance in the league. Challenge Cup isn’t enough to make the Italians competitive alone, but the confidence it can give them has potential.

Heineken Cup 2013/14

This kind of undoes the theory a little. Before the introduction of the Champions Cup, we had the Heineken Cup, which guaranteed that two Italian teams would play in the top level of European Rugby.

In the last year of its existence, the Italians, perhaps as expected, failed to make an impact. To be precise, they accrued a total of zero wins, zero draws and not even a whiff of a bonus point across Italy’s two ‘Premier’ sides.

What’s interesting is when you look at their Pro12 results. They both finished in the bottom two, accruing five wins a piece. Here are some notable results from that season.

Zebre

Zebre 25-3 Cardiff Blues

Zebre 16-16 Scarlets

Zebre 14-12 Benetton Treviso

Benetton Treviso

Benetton Treviso 20-15 Zebre

Benetton Treviso 26-26 Cardiff Blues                                          

Benetton Treviso 29-19 Munster

Benetton Treviso 23-3 Connacht

(Results from Wikipedia, please contact if there’s an error)

To put that in context, the Italians won three Pro12 games each the following year, a collective eight the next and are to date, on a collective three wins so far, this season (over half-way through).

So maybe this whole, put them in the Challenge Cup malarkey is rubbish?

It’s possible, but I think unlikely. Although the sample is limited, playing in a competition where wins are more likely will help the Italian teams, if only with confidence. This isn’t the answer to improving their results in the Pro12 , but it makes all of the competitions fairer, it gives the Italian sides attainable goals (as opposed to soul destruction in the Champions Cup). Who knows, if they grow in confidence and sort out their other issues, they might one day be competitive.

One thing is certain, The Italian clubs are here and they’re here to stay, so why not make the best of what we’ve got and put them into the right competition?

You can see ‘The Loose Head’s’ (who inspired this piece) thoughts, here.

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The Scribbler, January 3rd, 2017

Twitter: @RugbyScribbler