LONDON (Reuters) - Italy head coach Franco Smith compared living in lockdown to being in a prison on Wednesday and said he fully understood Matteo Minozzi's reasons for opting out of the Six Nations.
Wasps fullback Minozzi, who has scored 11 tries in 22 appearances for his country, said on social media he was too physically and mentally tired to live in a 'bubble' for another two months.
Smith said some players needed more emotional support during the COVID-19 pandemic, and added that the door was never shut. "I can 100% understand his situation. Living in a bubble, and having lived in a bubble myself for two months, it’s challenging," the South African told reporters at the tournament's virtual launch.
"The fact that you can’t walk to the fridge and open it to have something to eat or to drink, the fact that you don’t see your wife or your kids or your companion in the evenings makes a difference. To focus only on rugby and eat, sleep and drink it for two months is tough and player welfare for me is very important."
The former flyhalf said there was plenty of focus on concussion and playing with injuries but everyone was also talking about the emotional toll of the pandemic.
"All the countries and all teams have that problem – there is somebody there that’s suffering, more than they acknowledge maybe," he said.
"We just from our side as coaches and mentors need to address that... for some of these guys its difficult to adapt to a closed environment.
"I think prisoners get help sometimes with their adaption into a prison, so this is similar. Obviously a different environment."
England prop Joe Marler has also withdrawn for personal reasons, saying on Twitter he wanted "to do right by my family in these crazy times".
Italy, perennial wooden spoon winners who have won only one Six Nations game since 2013, have a daunting start as they begin at home to 2020 runners-up France on Saturday Feb. 6, before facing champions England at Twickenham on Feb. 13.
"Our challenges are not just who we are playing, I think our biggest challenge is ourselves," said Smith. "We've got to be better at what we do every game and every week."
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Pritha Sarkar)