Inside Italy's battle for Six Nations relevancy
ROME, Italy -- The cavernous press conference room at the Stadio Olimpico has been the venue for many a post-mortem on a hefty defeat for Italy's national rugby team. But on Sunday, after a 31-point loss to England, something felt different.
Head coach Conor O'Shea strode into the media room following the game wearing his emotion on his face. He was, he said, "proud and angry" and it was impossible to disagree as he discussed the defeat, acting as his own translator as he flicked between Italian and English.
O'Shea is clearly invested in the long-term project he took on in the summer of 2016. His pride came from the fact that his young team had gone toe-to-toe with the world's second-best side for so long, the anger because they had let an opportunity to make a statement -- one they believed they could deliver -- slip by.
He knows, too, that those who wish to see Georgia given a chance in the Six Nations will point to the margin of defeat, and England's seven tries, and wonder whether the Azzurri have made any progress at all in the 18 years since they were first admitted to European rugby's premier international championship. It is two years since former World Rugby chairman Bernard Lapasset called for promotion-relegation to be introduced, and the debate is sure to have a re-airing in November, when Italy host Georgia.
All the while, in the background, there is the ongoing work of an Irishman, his coaching team and others for the last 20 months or so as they attempt to inject life into the national set-up. Nine of Italy's starting XV in Rome had won fewer than 10 Test caps, seven were making their Six Nations debut.
It might be gradual, but there is a belief that progress is being made. "We shouldn't just look at the end result of a match, we should look at the small battles that we are winning," Italy and Treviso back row Braam Steyn told ESPN.
"We are becoming a better team, we're getting more depth, there's more competition, the franchises are doing really well -- Zebre's playing well, Benetton's playing well -- and I think that is what the focus is on."
It is Saturday, just before 3 p.m. local time in Rome. England and Italy have completed their captain's runs and while the Stadio Olimpico lies silent save for the din of workmen plumbing in beer barrels, city centre bars fill up with fans eager to catch Wales vs. Scotland, the opening match of this year's Six Nations.
But that is not the only rugby show in town. Approximately four kilometres east of the national stadium lies the Giulio Onesti Olympic Training Centre, a vast sporting campus that includes the home of S.S. Lazio Rugby 1927.
Lazio are at home to Medicei in the Eccellenza, the highest tier of Italy's league pyramid, and as kick off approaches a steady stream of supporters walk through the non-descript gate in the chain-link fence on the Via dei Campi Sportivi. Having stopped for an espresso or beer and a chat, they take their place in the grandstand that lines one side of the pitch or in the plastic seats behind the posts.
Admission is free and as the referee blows his whistle for the start of the match, a couple of hundred fans, including a travelling Medicei support of 50 or so from Florence, have huddled on the concrete steps. Amid shouts of "Dai Lazio, Dai" -- "come on, Lazio" -- there is an indisputable community feel to proceedings.
The Eccellenza -- superseded in Italian hierarchy only by Benetton and Zebre -- is made up of 10 teams, who each receive around €200,000 (£177,000) of funding each season from the Italian Rugby Federation (FIR). It acts as the final step between the national academy set-up and the two PRO14 clubs but it is far from a level playing field.
Traditional powerhouses of the Italian game, such as Calvisano, Rovigo and Viadana have playing budgets and stadia far bigger than that of Lazio, or newly promoted Medicei.
Indeed the visitors were only founded in 2015, but backed by the company that runs Florence and Pisa airports, they have quickly climbed the league pyramid. Their teamsheet in Rome includes two South Africans and a Welshman.
If his career had taken a slightly different path, Dan Newton would have been lining up for Wales against Scotland in Cardiff. A contemporary of Gareth Davies and Scott Williams in the Scarlets academy, he played 30 times for the Welsh region in the PRO12, largely at fullback.
But then came a move to London Scottish, and after three years in the English capital his agent came to him with a proposition. A wealthy ambitious club in Italy's Serie A, the league below Eccellenza, were in need of a fly-half.
"I enjoy my rugby here," Newton tells ESPN. "It's much better than playing in the wind and rain every weekend in Wales. The people are very friendly, I'm enjoying myself."
Medicei began in the ascendancy and at roughly the same time that Davies was streaking away to score the opening try of the Six Nations at the Principality Stadium, his friend and former teammate was adding a conversion to give the visitors a 7-0 lead. Despite a couple of second-half penalties from Newton, however, Lazio would edge a brutal contest 15-13.
Rugby union is not officially a professional sport in Italy -- only football and volleyball are -- a fact reinforced on Saturday when home back row Luca Ercolani was forced to depart the field on the back of a teammate after he suffered a leg injury.
"I think Championship is a higher level," Newton says of the standard of a division he compares to National League 1 in England. "Physicality-wise it's probably the same; Italians love the gym, they're big boys. Just in general, I think their skills let them down a bit -- the basic skills.
"But rugby's growing. In our club in Florence there's so many kids there are two teams at under-14s, under-16s, under-18s, so they have the passion for it."
Newton is from the Welsh rugby heartland of Carmarthen but struggles to think of a club in his homeland with such healthy numbers in its youth set-up.
"They need a little better coaching when they're younger, a bit more touch, special awareness and they'll be fine," he adds. "It will grow and grow, there's definitely a passion."
Mini rugby is thriving, but there is a considerable gap from Eccellenza to the PRO14. Newton says: "A few boys last year got picked up by Treviso and Zebre, so they [the franchises] are watching these games. But in general not many go up."
Steyn was one of the lucky ones. He arrived at Mogliano -- a club in rugby's northern Italian heartland -- in 2012 having helped South Africa win that year's Junior World Cup.
A year later he moved across the Po Valley to Calvisano. Martin Castrogiovanni and Andrew Mehrtens are famous alumni of a club that competed in European competition as recently as 2015-16. His time at the Brescia-based club provided a launching pad to international honours, qualifying for Italy on the international three-year residency rule.
Steyn is grateful for the opportunity Italy has given him in the Test arena, but is acutely aware that it comes with responsibility. "I'm thankful for my position but in five years' time you want it to be an Italian[-only] team, and a competitive Italian team. A winning Italian team," he says.
"We're just passengers on this ship. We will wear this jersey a few times and you have to leave it in a better place for the next person who is going to be a passenger in that role, in that position."
According to both Steyn and Tommaso Allan, his Treviso and Italy teammate, O'Shea has brought positivity and know-how to the Azzurri set-up. There is joined-up thinking, now, too.
Information is passed down to the clubs, and vice versa, while the players feel there is a method behind everything they are asked to do. Allan says it means he no longer feels like he is "taking a backward step" when he meets up with Italy.
"He [O'Shea] has brought a different culture, a different mindset," Allan tells ESPN. "He's a very positive guy, I think that's influenced us a lot. As a group now we're very positive and we always believe that we can go out there and win each game.
"Obviously the people he has brought with him [help] -- the strength and conditioning coaches, the nutritionist, the coaches behind him like Catty [Mike Catt] and those guys.
"It's a lot more experienced and a higher level of professionalism which has helped us get better as a team because if you have all the setup around you, which is pretty professional, as a player you are more motivated to improve."
All of which explains the mixed emotion with which O'Shea greeted the final whistle at the Stadio Olimpico on Sunday. Italy might not have progressed as hoped since they gained entry to the Six Nations in 2000, but the Irishman is putting the plans in place that might just help them to do so in the next five to 10 years.
In Italy, at least, there is an acceptance that this is the case. Last Friday, O'Shea arrived at Giulio Onesti to announce his team for the game against England, to find that a separate media conference hosted by the country's National Olympic Committee president, Giovanni Malago, had run over.
Malago proceeded to lead a round of applause for the Italy coach, before pausing several times to consult the former Harlequins boss about the validity of a Sir Steve Redgrave anecdote he was sharing with the room. It seemed very much as though he was part of the fabric of Italian rugby.
"Obviously nothing's perfect but that is what we're aiming towards [becoming competitive in the Six Nations] and slowly but surely we'll get there," Steyn says. "If you look at where we were and the amount of players that have changed, we're a really young team compared to two or three years ago, and where we actually are, I think it's a massive improvement.
"The results sooner or later will come."
He adds: "It's exciting to be part of something that maybe you guys don't see it, but we feel that it is going places and it's awesome."