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Zebre doing best to earn stripes

Former Ballymena coach Bester says Italians are on the way up

By Michael Sadlier

It's all rather pleasant over in northern Italy at this time of year and he has been out on the training ground wearing just shorts and flip-flops though it's highly doubtful that the players under his gaze have been enjoying the conditions quite so much.

This is the part of the world where Andre Bester earns his corn these days as the recently appointed Technical Director of Rugby CUS Torino, who are based at the University of Turin.

In some ways the wheel has come full circle after the South African was initially involved with the Rovigo club back in the late 90s prior to getting an unexpected call from Willie John McBride and heading over to Ulster to take on the coaching job at Ballymena.

Since then, Bester has certainly continued to clock up the miles and the jobs having also had a stint in charge of Belfast Harlequins and some work at Banbridge ahead of a notably colourful time at English Championship side Rotherham Titans, which abruptly ended two years ago.

A controversial character, there has never been any doubting his coaching skills and top players who came under his tutelage still readily name-check him as having been a fundamental part of their development.

Indeed, Bester helped launch the early careers of Roger Wilson and Rory Best as well as more recently getting the now Munster players Sean Dougall and Robin Copeland out of the doldrums and relaunching them as players with a professional future.

But Italian rugby has always remained a passion for the outspoken coach and, indeed, prior to taking on the job at Turin, he had already spent some time last season tapping into the Zebre psyche and passing on his expertise in forward play to the squad who Ulster face for the second time this season on Saturday in Parma.

So, no better man to cast his eye over the state of the game over there and what Ulster can expect from this weekend's trip to Zebre – still not an easy place to get a result as Ulster know only too well – while also reflecting on the current situation with the two Italian franchises, who are already at the foot of the PRO12 table with no points to their names.

As for Ulster, despite the off-field turmoil which hit them over the summer, Bester reckons they have shown impressive resilience over the course of the first three games.

He identifies their "core squad members" as being the essence of Ulster's inner strength which is present by the very fact that they have stayed put in the province and within the well-organised and centralised Irish set-up.

Bester also admits that he is an admirer of assistant coach Neil Doak and is very hopeful he gets the top job once Les Kiss moves on as, after all, the former Ulster player "has served his apprenticeship and deserves his chance."

But back to matters Italian and the Bloemfontein native rightly admits that things do look bleak with factors such as lack of funding and proper organisation, alongside the very significant drain of players who quit Italy to pursue careers in France and England, all having stalled the growth of the game at the top end of its regional structure within the country.

"It's a difficult situation that they (the two franchises) find themselves in. They cannot compete right now," is how the 48-year-old puts it.

"The primary issue here is how do we protect Italian rugby from the talent drain that is currently going on.

"It's unbelievable to see the number of players Treviso have lost (he estimates around 21 have gone in the off-season) and they just can't compete with that so that is where the problem really lies.

"The Italian Federation are trying to do a lot of work but it's very difficult."

Despite some progress last season from Zebre – who won five games in the PRO12 as opposed to none in the previous season which was their first after the Aironi franchise was folded up – there has been little cheer so far.

Zebre's last two games – both away clashes which saw them heavily beaten by Ulster and Munster – have already seen them ship 64 points. It's no better with Treviso, who are currently bottom as they were humiliatingly tanked 43-0 at the Scarlets last Saturday.

He won't actually be in Parma on Saturday to see Ulster take on Zebre, a game in Viadana requires his attention, but Bester explains that efforts are being made to try and help the struggling Italian regions.

"In terms of the PRO12," he adds, "we need to be patient.

"This is a process that's still a work in progress to try and get their house in order.

"The push is on to get more centralised contracts and they (the Italian Federation) are trying to move towards that.

"It's going to take a while to sort it all out but if they can just get a bit of consistency and do something about the big turnover of players then they will do better," Bester says of both the Italian clubs.

The theory is that a proper structure will make the difference and be hugely beneficial for Italian rugby in the regional tier between the professional club game and the reasonably sound national set-up.

He sees himself as an evangelist for taking the game at university level to a new plain of organisation and dedication to replicate the situation in the southern hemisphere.

That, too, will bring greater depth and strength to the Italian structure, Bester argues.

But all is not entirely without hope and he does reckon Zebre still have the capability of pulling off another few shocks in the same way they did last season.

"Zebre will win home matches. They have come close to beating Ulster recently and, remember, if you go back to last season they actually got a losing bonus point at Ravenhill.

"If we can get over the next two or three years, there will be stability here but the bottom line is we need to grow the game properly."

It sounds like he's, once again, in the right place at the right time to make a difference.

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