Rugby: Mallett - 'South is tougher'

By Peter Bills

The rooftops of Rome might offer a new vista as a working environment for Nick Mallett but the challenge remains inherent. In fact, greater than ever, in his view.

"This is the biggest professional challenge I have ever had," insists Italy's new coach. "You are an international coach in Europe but you have little time to prepare your team. So you can only be judged as a coach after 3-6 months here. I only got the players together one week before our first match in the Six Nations, against Ireland in Dublin.

"What that means is you are incredibly dependent on the quality of competitions they play in and the coaching they get with their clubs or provinces. That was the big advantage Jake White had with the South African players. They were together so much as a squad and they were very well coached at provinces like the Sharks and Bulls. So the coaching, physical fitness and preparation was done for him."

Rome on this winter's day is simply stunning as the sun beats down and the mimosa tress burst into colour. The former Springbok coach sits at his favourite cafe and gets on to a familiar subject: The Six Nations or the Tri-Nations. Which is better? Mallett is in no doubt.

Technically, he says, the Six Nations is the equal of the Tri-Nations. Fitness levels, structures, defensive patterns ... none differ greatly. But there is one huge difference between the two, he insists.

"The intensity of New Zealand v South Africa is not yet matched by a test match in the Six Nations. They don't put their bodies on the line with the same ferocity as a South African or New Zealander defending his turf. The Afrikaner is very physical; he loves tackling and is very brave. It's the same for the players of island origin in New Zealand sides. They get huge pleasure out of a big hit.

"So for me, it's the absolute intensity that is the difference. The Southern Hemisphere teams hit harder in the contact situations, with or without the ball. In terms of muscularity, speed and size, the Northern Hemisphere teams are up there. It's just the mental side of it that is different. You don't see a Schalk Burger-type player here with absolutely no fear. Schalk is like a threshing machine. Players here will make the tackle but in the Southern Hemisphere it is almost an intense hatred of the opposition.

"When they clear you out of a ruck in New Zealand or South Africa, they are doing it so hard to hurt you and saying in effect: 'Don't ever come here again.'

"It is that kind of intensity I'm talking about. South Africa understood their skill levels weren't as good as New Zealand's in retaining possession. But their main weapon was to be as destructive as possible when the opposition had the ball. And I think that will always be the case. It stems from the differing cultures. There is more a sense of preservation among French, Italian and Northern Hemisphere teams.

"There seems to be a lack of thought going into contact in the Southern Hemisphere. They are just incredibly courageous."

The debate in Italian rugby, as ever, is to what extent foreigners should be allowed to play in the national side.

Italy has fielded New Zealanders and South Africans in recent years and Mallett told Italian President Carlo Dondi he could target 10 young South African players, bring them over to Italian clubs and in three years' time they would be qualified through residency to play for Italy. This policy produced agreeable results for John Kirwan when he took charge of the Italian side.

"He told me that was not what he wanted," says Mallett. "They don't feel the foreign players here are head and shoulders above the local players they have. They want to go for Italian players and create very much an Italian flavour to this squad. [Yet] under professionalism, the game is going towards picking the best players no matter where they come from. Look at England and Lesley Vainikola - the Tongan.

"From outside, I considered the right way for Italy was to develop three really talented sets of halfbacks over the next three years, maybe from South Africa and Australia. But politically, that's not a popular move here. That is why I have really made an effort to select Italian-born players in my squads to date."

But this is Italy's, and Mallett's, dilemma. Without imported quality players, Italy will struggle in the foreseeable future at this level. But the long-term good requires local talent.

Mallett made two changes to his squad for Monday's clash with England in Rome. Prop Carlos Nieto, who missed the 16-11 loss to Ireland because of the death of his father, returns and Enrico Patrizio replaces Pablo Canavosio at centre.

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