Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 20 August 2014

Heineken Cup: Figures don’t add up for an upset

The stats are, well, unavoidably grim. Seventeen games in all competitions and just one win; Aironi’s debut season has so far brought considerably more pain than gain.

The pattern hardly shows much sign of being radically altered as they sit bottom of both the Magners League — where they have managed a measly four losing bonus points while conceding a horrible 330 points in 12 outings — and Pool Four of the Heineken Cup though it is in Europe that they actually stumbled on what has proved to be a very elusive feeling for the squad; an occasion when they finished in front.

And, of course, when their 28-27 result came in round three at the Stadio Luigi Zaffanella it was a seismic result in that the Italians had managed to somehow scalp the mighty Biarritz who, at the time, were everyone’s shoo-ins to for qualification.

Not surprisingly, full back Julian Laharrague’s late drop goal winner, on that Saturday afternoon in December, had an impact on the squad’s performance as the Herons then narrowly lost their Magners League double-header derbies against nearest rivals Treviso before putting up a decent battle while losing by 11 points at Cardiff Blues.

You could also hardly have blamed former Italy skipper Marco Bortolami for getting a bit carried away in the wake of the result as he heaped praise on the club’s new head coach who happens to be Welshman Rowland Phillips who had arrived at the start of the season as defensive coach but was then promoted after the 33-8 league hammering meted out at Glasgow in November.

“It feels like a whole new start for us now,” Bortolami said.

“We proved that we have quality and we can really play. It brings the self-belief back into the team and we can start to believe we can compete against anyone.

“We proved ourselves against last season's European Cup finalists and that is huge,” the ex-Gloucester player said before singling out Phillips for special mention, “he has bought the British mentality to the club and to coaching.

“He is putting us on the right foot for the journey we have ahead,” Bortolami maintained before the second row then went on to receive a one game suspension, after picking up a third yellow card of the season in the second clash with Treviso over the Christmas period, which meant he missed the Blues game.

At least he was back for last Saturday’s European game at Bath where he promptly, you guessed it, picked up another yellow card after arriving off the bench. Oh yes, the Herons’ discipline has hardly been a strong point.

Anyway, all that optimism in the wake of the first Biarritz game couldn’t last and along came last weekend when Aironi suffered a cataclysmic relapse which, more by accident than design, ended up being somewhat overshadowed by other matters pertaining to the national scene.

Yes, Monday ought to have ended up with much hand-wringing being done by both Italian clubs but, instead, panned out as a day of intrigue and politicking as Nick Mallett’s unveiling of Italy’s initial 24-man squad for the start of the Six Nations was spectacularly trumped by reports in the Italian Press that Perpignan manager Jacques Brunel had made it known that he will be Italy’s new coach after the World Cup.

The timing of Brunel’s revelation could probably have been a bit more subtle on a day when Mallett was in the public eye, but then anything to do with the Azzurri did at least temporarily distract attention from what had been a truly desperate weekend for Italian rugby when it came to matters European.

In Pool Five, Treviso had been regally thumped 44-9 at home by Brunel’s Perpignan, who summarily exacted revenge for last season’s narrow defeat to the Italians, and the Italian club are now to be found embarrassingly off the pace at the foot of the table with only one point to their name.

And then, of course, there was Pool Four. Aironi made their way to Bath and were completely taken to the cleaners conceding seven tries and shipping the heaviest points total of their season so far as the home side ran riot to win 55-16. Both clubs have collectively supplied Mallett’s squad with 16 players with five of them — forwards Salvatore Perugini, Fabio Ongaro, Quintin Geldenhuys and former Ulster player Carlo Del Fava and scrum half Pablo Canavosio — plying their trade with newcomers Aironi.

It may be too harsh call to make but the European groups which look most likely to produce the two best runners-up as qualifiers are the ones with both Italian sides in them; namely Aironi’s Pool Four where Biarritz and Ulster are looking good to make the last eight and Pool Five where Treviso prop up a table that should see both Perpignan and Leicester into the quarter-finals.

Yet having said that, Aironi will certainly be up for tomorrow’s challenge against what could be an edgy enough Ulster side. If they could do it to an albeit complacent Basque outfit then why not repeat the dose with nothing to play for over a side with everything hinging on the need to win?

The Italians will also recall how Brian McLaughlin’s men struggled to put them away when the sides first met on the second weekend of the league campaign and will look to replicate their obduracy on that day.

The problem is those darn statistics are ominously stacking up against them.

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