Watch out Wales because Italy are on the up — Franco Smith
ITALY v WALES (Tomorrow, KO 2.30)
RUGBY in Italy is flourishing and Wales are in for a tough weekend in Rome with the Azzurri desperate to build on their fabulous victory over France, says former Newport favourite Franco Smith.
He says their shock 23-18 triumph over France in their opening Six Nations clash earlier this month has done wonders for the game in the football-mad country.
Ex-South Africa fly half Smith, part of a Springbok-driven revolution at the Black and Ambers which saw him and back rower Gary Teichmann join the club in 1999, is Treviso head coach.
He has lived in Italy for most of the ten years that have passed since he left Newport in 2000 after a successful season at Rodney Parade.
The outside half, a try scorer for the Boks in Wales’ record defeat, the 96-13 debacle at Pretoria in 1998, says the game grows in popularity in Italy with every season that passes.
That was evident from the 73,000 sell-out crowd at the Stadio Olimpico for the Azzurri’s 42-10 defeat to the All Blacks in November.
The attendance shrunk to 57,547 for the victory over France three weeks ago – the fact it was played on a Sunday a factor.
But the same ground, which is shared by Serie A giants Lazio and Roma, is sure to be packed by passionate Italian rugby fans tomorrow afternoon.
Smith admitted rugby used to be a hard-sell in a country where the round ball is king, Italy being football’s top dogs on no less than four occasions after lifting the World Cup in 1934, 1938, 1982 and 2006. Attitudes to the oval ball are starting to change however.
“People’s mindset in Italy about rugby is starting to change,” he said.
“In the Treviso area where we come from, rugby is already very popular, but it’s starting to grow bigger and bigger and it’s slowly becoming more a followed sport.
“It used to be reported on the sixth or seventh page inside the sports section, but now you see it on the back pages of the newspapers.
“And the culture and traditions of rugby is something that the people are starting to latch onto, both on and off the field.”
Italy’s victory over France has been tainted after they were smashed in Scotland despite going to Murrayfield with high hopes.
Sergio Parisse and his men were eclipsed in Edinburgh by Scott Johnson’s side a week after putting the French to the sword.
That heavy 34-10 defeat has been compounded by the absence of their inspirational captain and number eight for the rest of the Six Nations.
Parisse was banned for 30 days on Wednesday following his sending off for verbally abusing a referee while playing for his club Stade Français in the Top 14 last weekend.
Smith believes Italy will still provide Wales with a stern challenge.
“It’s at home and an Italian side is difficult to beat at home, but they’ve got to learn to cope with pressure – they need to be more consistent,” he said.
“They have to hold their defensive systems and their ability to hold onto possession has got so much better.
“I think if they can do that well, they can be very competitive and they will be a dangerous threat at home.”