By Alasdair Mackenzie
ROME (Reuters) - Italian rugby great Mirco Bergamasco has highlighted a lack of players moving abroad and youth development issues as reasons for his country’s recent struggles on the international stage.
The Azzurri, who welcome France to Rome on Saturday for the opening game of the 2021 Six Nations, are widely considered favourites to collect a sixth consecutive wooden spoon after suffering a record 27 consecutive defeats in the competition.
"The main problem is that 90 per cent of our players play in Italy," Bergamasco told Reuters.
"Letting them go abroad, to have new experiences in other teams and leagues that are more developed... even if most of our players play in the Pro 14, having an experience in England or France allows you to open your eyes about rugby and understand more.
"You need that, because playing for a team in another country allows you to see, hear and understand things that maybe aren't possible in Italy."
Bergamasco, who scored 256 points in 89 Italy caps, joined French club Stade Francais aged 20 in 2003 and spent 10 years in the country, later joining Racing Metro.
But Italy's 32-man Six Nations squad this year only includes two players who represent foreign clubs: Brive prop Pietro Ceccarelli and Gloucester scrum-half Stephen Varney.
"I think we need more people to go and have these experiences abroad," he added.
"(It would) free up more spots in Italy for the youngsters playing in the Italian championship, who don’t have the chance right now because places are limited."
FOCUS ON YOUTH
Bergamasco starred in Six Nations victories over France, Scotland and Wales during his 10-year international career, which ended in 2012.
But the current Italy side is without a win since 2015 and questions have even been raised about their long-term future in the tournament.
The 37-year-old is now a coach for French second-tier club Soyaux Angouleme XV Charente, and he believes that Italy could learn from how young players are developed in France.
"France have won the last two Under-20 World Cups because there is great work being done behind the scenes," he said.
"Players don’t spring out of the ground like mushrooms, they have a very important youth system and are closely tracked.
"They are given responsibility from the age of 15 and have an objective from that point.
"When they get to the first team, they’ve already done significant work. They aren’t surprised by a higher level because they’ve already experienced and learned about the hard work required to reach that level."
CLOSER ANALYSIS REQUIRED
Lots of young players have been given opportunities under current Italy coach Franco Smith, whose current squad has an average age of 24.
But faith in youth is yet to spark an upturn in form and Bergamasco believes the lack of elite players breaking through in Italy requires closer analysis.
"You need to be sure if the defeats are coming because the players are too young, or for other reasons," he said.
"I think that the young players in Italy have incredible quality, which they haven’t managed to fully express yet.
"We need to understand if the players are limited in their capacity to express their potential, or if we aren’t managing to put them in a position to express that potential."
(Reporting by Alasdair Mackenzie; Editing by Christian Radnedge)