ROME : Kieran Crowley faced a daunting challenge in transforming Italy’s struggling rugby team from the moment he took the job in May, but he has not been helped by how events have unfolded since.
The 60-year-old was appointed two months after the Azzurri lost every match of their Six Nations campaign for a sixth successive year.
But the cancellation of a summer tour to Crowley’s native New Zealand means he will only lead his new side for the first time on Saturday, when the number one-ranked team in the world, the All Blacks, visit Rome. It is the most intimidating debut imaginable.
"It is going to be a good line in the sand for us, to see how we measure up against them," Crowley told Reuters.
New Zealand won the Rugby Championship in September and have played 12 test matches, most recently a 54-16 win in Wales last weekend, since the 14th-ranked Italians last took to the field.
But Crowley facing his home country, who he won the World Cup with in 1987 as a player before going on to coach the Under-19 side, is nothing new after his eight-year spell in charge of Canada from 2008 to 2016.
"I have been through it before, I coached Canada at the World Cup and we played New Zealand," he said, referring to a 79-15 defeat in 2011.
"It is certainly a challenging one. You look at their last game against Wales. I don’t think Wales played badly, but they still scored 54 points against them. They are an outstanding team on great form, it doesn’t matter who they put out there."
Crowley is a well-respected figure in Italian rugby after leading Treviso-based Benetton Rugby from 2016 to 2021.
During that time, Benetton became the first Italian side to reach the Pro14 playoffs in 2019 and won their first major title with last season's Rainbow Cup victory.
But even the most optimistic Azzurri fan will not be expecting the Crowley era to begin with a momentous victory over their illustrious visitors, and the 60-year-old is not anticipating quick-fix solutions either.
"I have said since I got this job not to expect big changes on the scoreboard - in terms of wins and losses - to happen quickly, because they don’t at this level," he said.
"The teams we are playing most of the time are way above us in the world rankings, so we have to have some goals within the team that we can look to achieve.
"If we can achieve those, it is a positive and that will have an effect on the scoreboard, whether it is with closer scorelines or eking out a win here and there."
Crowley’s predecessor Franco Smith leaned heavily on youth, handing chances to the likes of flyhalf Paolo Garbisi, prop Marco Riccioni and centre Federico Mori, all of whom went on to earn summer moves overseas to Montpellier, Saracens and Bordeaux respectively.
While the new coach is encouraged by the young talent coming through – unlike the senior team, Italy have not finished last in the Under-20 Six Nations since 2017 - he believes more can be done at youth level.
"The first thing that has to happen is changes in the whole political system. The new (Italian Rugby Federation) president (Marzio Innocenti) is trying to do that," he said.
"You have all got to be working in the same direction and where Italy has probably fallen down in the past is the transfer of these Under-20 players into the professional clubs.
"They go back to their clubs which are semi-professional, who do as good a job as they can but they are semi-pro. You have got to go from the Under-20 successes into the full professional environments to be able to go through."
(Reporting by Alasdair Mackenzie; Editing by Christian Radnedge)