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Ulster were taught lesson in how Italian rugby is on rise, says 1999 hero Mason

 

By Jonathan Bradley

After Ulster were brought back down to earth with a bump against Zebre last weekend, one of the province's European heroes of 1999 believes Les Kiss' men found out the hard way that Italian rugby is a different animal this season.

Ulster arrived in Parma having taken four wins from their first four games and boasting one of only two undefeated records in the new Guinness PRO14, only to come a cropper in a 27-23 reverse.

The result sparked a great deal more talk of what the visitors did wrong than of what Zebre did right, but the game was another indicator that things are finally trending upwards in Italy where the league's two clubs have combined for four wins in the last three rounds.

And while to say former Ulster and Treviso full-back Simon Mason had a foot in both camps would be disingenuous - although back home in Liverpool, the three-times-capped Irish international still watches rugby through decidedly Ulster-tinted glasses - he does hope the encouraging signs continue for the Italian sides having once feared their introduction to the then Celtic League had come too late.

"When I first went to Italy in 2001, it was before that real explosion of money in France and England," recalled the man who kicked six penalties in that 1999 final win over Colomiers.

"There were teams like Toulouse and Stade Francais that paid big wages, but it was limited to those clubs really.

"The Italian federation at that time were working really hard to keep guys home and most of the national team came through with us at Benetton, it was a good side we had.

"But in the period just after I left that trickle started, the likes of Sergio Parisse and Martin Castrogiovanni left, and soon enough it was a flood.

"By the time they came into the Celtic League in 2010, the shame was that they'd already lost too many. They weren't geared up then to make a proper fist of it.

"If it had come when I was in Italy it would have been a different story, but they missed the boat. Had it come earlier, you never know, but it can take a decade or even a generation to get that back."

While there have been plenty of times in recent seasons when even the Italians' place in the cross-border competition has been questioned, Mason has been refreshed to see the country's long-suffering rugby supporters belatedly handed a little cheer.

"From my experience, and I really enjoyed it, they love rugby over there, genuinely they do," he said of his three years at the Stadio di Monigo, which came after an unhappy stint at Stade Francais.

"There's a place for rugby in Italy. People can be dismissive of it at times, thinking it's only football, but it's not true. There's an appetite as both a playing and paying public.

"You have to remember that in the grand scheme of things it wasn't that long ago that Ireland were struggling at rugby, then you see a winning side develop and the popularity sky-rockets.

"People can be fickle, they like to come and see a team when it is doing well. That's not just Italy, you'd see the same with Ulster or Leinster too. If they were down at the bottom every year, winning only a handful of games, the attendances would suffer.

"From an Italian point of view, what they need to attract those who are still sitting on the fence is now a successful Italian national team."

It is here where talk of an Italian renaissance is perhaps most intriguing.

We have seen brief spikes in results before - Treviso finished seventh in 2013, losing only 10 of their 22 games - but in Conor O'Shea there seems a real catalyst for permanent change.

The former Leinster full-back, who for a decent chunk of the 1990s held the Ireland Test jersey that Mason had his eyes on, took over the national side in 2016, bringing with him the IRFU's Head of Technical Direction Stephen Aboud.

And with talk of the pair promoting a greater communication and a pooling of resources between the Azzurri and their two clubs, Mason hopes O'Shea's burgeoning revolution continues to bear fruit.

"I know from my time there's a lot of politics," said the 43-year-old who is improbably still pulling the boots on locally. "There is in every sport, especially in Italy, but with rugby there's been a lot of hurdles, a lot of bickering and a lot of infighting.

"But Conor is a really bright, switched on sort of man as well as a coach. You can see the appointments, the ones that he's obviously had a say in, are already having a benefit.

"Once you get your structure right, it's the same thing as we've seen in Ireland, there's no telling what you can do.

"You hope he's given the time and that things keep improving for both clubs."

Just so long as, Mason hopes, it's not at Ulster's expense next time around.

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