Italy coach Franco Smith. Pic: Getty Images.

Franco Smith Once Beat Stephen Jones 96-13 . . . But As Italy Coach He’s Yet To Win With A Team Who Have Forgotten How It Feels

The last time Italy won a match in the Six Nations, Louis Rees-Zammit was 14 years old. For most Wales fans, Saturday’s fixture against the Italians is already just a footnote ahead of a Grand Slam decider against France next week. Tomas Marks looks at the problems and the prospects for Wales’ opponents.

 Franco Smith’s journey to becoming Italy’s head coach has been a fascinating adventure.

Smith is a nine-times capped Springbok, who played fly-half and scored for South Africa in their crushing 96-13 win against Wales in 1998.

That day, he lined up against current Wales attack coach Stephen Jones, who was earning his first cap, and Jones will be looking to inflict some revenge for his memorable for-all-the-wrong-reasons start to international rugby.

Wales were dubbed then as the “worst team in the world” after that thrashing but have since been able to recover their standing in the rankings and can move to within one game of another Grand Slam if they win on Saturday.

Smith only lost once in his international playing career, but life as the Italian national coach is rather different to that of a Springbok and he is still looking for that maiden victory as an international head coach.

The 48-year-old has lived, played and coached in Italy for over a decade and has embraced the language and culture.

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A fluent Italian speaker he has a good understanding of Italian rugby and culture. Smith’s coaching has produced titles at Treviso and at the Cheetahs back in his home country and he was an assistant coach for South Africa in 2017, under Allister Coetzee.

Smith is supported in his Italian coaching team by 101 cap Alessandro Troncon as his backs coach, Marius Goosen as his defence coach, Giampiero De Carli as the forwards coach, and Corrado Pilat as his skills coach.

De Carli, incidentally, scored Italy’s first try in the Six Nations in 2000 and was one of the tryscorers when they beat Wales in 2003 at the Stadio Flaminio.

What are the chances of one of their props scoring and winning on Saturday? You would have to say, they are on the extremely small side – statistically, perhaps three per cent – given that it is now six years and 30 matches since they last won a game in the tournament.

Smith, a devote Christian, needs to start praying as his side will need some divine inspiration to win this match.

Even then, Italy will need the likes of Paolo Garbisi to pull the strings and get his team over that finish line.

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Back in 2003, veteran fly-half Diego Dominguez was the inspiration with 15 points from his mercurial boot.

Garbisi needs to watch that encounter back and study Dominguez’s  game management and how he led his team to victory.

There is no doubt Garbisi is a prodigious talent and has probably played more internationals than major club games.

That has seen his stock rise from playing for Petrarca Rugby in 2020 to facing his teenage hero, Owen Farrell, in this year’s Six Nations.

But for Italy to even come close, the law degree student needs to use his talent and brain to outwit and outplay a resurgent Welsh squad.

The Italians’ downward spiral means a victory would be precious and would go some way to saving their credibility in this tournament, with so many now openly questioning their value to the competition.

Goosen, especially, has been through a torrid time over the last five years but there have been a few rare days of sunshine.

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One occurred in 2017 when Italy outwitted England with their no offside line innovation. It wasn’t enough to win at Twickenham, but it at least showed they were still thinking about tactics that might help them close the gap with their rivals.

Pilat demands that the squad should treat every match like it is a war. Fighting talk from a skills coach, but is it this mentality that is missing from their three limp showings so far in this current Six Nations?

More likely is the blunt truth that they have not got the players and leaders to overcome  adversity.

Italy need to draw on the tenacity of players like Stephen Varney and Sebastian Negri to inspire at least some kind of challenge against Wales.

Negri has been through some pain in his life when his family had to flee Zimbabwe during the land reform era.

The second row’s journey from Zimbabwe to the Stadio Olimpico has been a story of redemption and he will need to use this resilience if Wales are to be challenged up front.

Much has already been written about Wales’ Italian convert Stephen Varney, their liveware scrum-half.

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He has conquered a positive Covid test and being locked in a hotel room on his first international call-up for Italy to make a good impression against England at Twickenham.

Smith, too, has had his troubled times, even with South Africa. He suffered against New Zealand, when the All Blacks beat the Boks, 57-0, in 2017, and as the assistant coach at the time he knows what it is like to feel the wrath of the South African rugby public.

It is hardly the same in Italy, where rugby is in the shadow of football, but Italian rugby followers are impatient for the day when their team again have that durability and edge that once made them a pain for other nations.

At the start of his tenure, Smith promised more unpredictability, greater physicality, and a high work ethic.

The last two of those requirements should be a given for any Test team, but a more imaginative approach would also certainly help any prospect of upsetting Wales.

Six years is a long time to go in any competition without winning a game. Dylan Thomas wrote, “these are but dreaming men” and while Smith and his team have their dreams, that is all they are likely to have come Saturday night in Rome.


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