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Is Italy’s rugby trip south the ultimate tour too far?
But it seems especially appropriate this year after the International Rugby Board (IRB) cooked up the ultimate mismatched series by handing Italy tests against Australia in Canberra and Melbourne on June 13 and 20 and a meeting with New Zealand in Christchurch on June 27.
Maybe the Azzurri can put a dismal Six Nations behind them and give the Wallabies and All Blacks a run for their money. But I don’t think that is likely even if they meet second-string sides and coach Nick Mallett seems to share the pessimism.
“It’s a hell of a tough tour in anyone’s book,” the former Springbok boss told New Zealand’s Sunday News.
“Even if I was coaching South Africa and had to play Australia and New Zealand over three consecutive Saturdays, I wouldn’t be happy with a tour like that. If we had an opportunity this year, like Wales and Ireland, to play USA and Canada, it would have been the perfect tour for Italy. But we’re on this schedule and there’s nothing we can do about it.”
The IRB’s logic would seem to be that the Azzurri must face better teams if they are to continue developing. But they already do that in the Six Nations. Giving them impossible fixtures outside the competition just risks ruining the team’s self belief by setting up a seemingly unending sequence of defeats.
Italy have yet to meet a lower ranked nation since Mallett took over after the 2007 World Cup and have won just two tests as a consequence, against Scotland and Argentina last year. The poor run looks unlikely to end soon as they are scheduled to play higher ranked sides up to the 2011 World Cup.
This tour is particularly arduous as it comes when the squad is weakened by injuries at the end of the season. When Josh Sole, Martin Castrogiovanni, Andrea Marcato, Simon Picone and Gilberto Pavan pulled out late, Mallett had to call up five replacements with six caps between them. What chance will they have against the sport’s superpowers?
“Rugby should be a mix of playing against teams who are better than you, at the same level and weaker than you,” said Mallett. “But if you’re continually playing against sides vastly better than you then it takes a very special kind of team spirit to go out there and keep trying.”
PHOTO: Italy coach Nick Mallett checks his watch before their Six Nations match against France at the Stadio Flaminio in Rome March 21, 2009. REUTERS/Giampiero Sposito