Cape Town - In an exclusive interview, South African-born former Italy international CARLO DEL FAVA talks about rugby’s fight against doping, Rassie Erasmus’ return to SA Rugby and the Test in Padova on Saturday.
Sport24 asked: How would you compare the current Bok side to those you faced?
Carlo del Fava: During my 54-Test career for Italy, I played against the Springboks on three occasions between 2008 and 2010. The Bok team I faced to the one now is a different animal altogether. By all accounts, it was a different era of player. It was very difficult to stop that Springbok team and the bottom line was that they could raise their game against any opponent. The maturity level of the Bok teams I faced was vastly different to the playing personnel Allister Coetzee has selected. From a physical perspective, I don’t believe the current Springbok side is one of the weakest I have seen turn out for the men in green and gold. However, tactically and technically the current custodians of the jersey leave a lot to be desired. My former Italy coach Nick Mallett described the Springboks post the French Test as being “technically poor” and he has a point to be honest. Tactically and in terms of mentality there is a vast difference between the Springboks then and now. During the era of Bismarck du Plessis, Victor Matfield and Jean de Villiers among others, the Boks knew how to adapt to each situation whenever they were under pressure. And, when rivalling South Africa, there wasn’t a methodological game plan sequence that you could follow. The current Bok team is still experiencing teething problems because they haven’t found the correct combinations. Physically, they have shown that they can stand up to every single team but, from a tactical point of view, I feel that their preparation could be so much better. For argument’s sake, often during a Test match I see them exiting from the left hand corner with a left-footed kicker. As a former player and current pundit, I can see it playing out and I think to myself: 'Surely the players should know not to do that?!'. You have to wait, set up the players, get the right-footed kicker in place and then exit properly. Having once been in the arena, I can understand it from a player’s perspective in the sense that you sometimes do things on the field which aren’t from the textbook, but the devil is in the detail. Another bugbear of mine is the premeditated substitutions from Coetzee. Coetzee mustn’t just make changes at the hour mark for change’s sake. Changes mustn’t be prescribed. Against Ireland, he took off Beast Mtawarira and Malcolm Marx for what reason I couldn’t understand whatsoever. Those two players were doing the most damage, but they were pulled from the field and, all of a sudden, the scrum creaked and the lineout didn’t operate optimally. If Coetzee can leave his best players on the field and let them keep working, the Springboks will get better. There is no reason to withdraw these super-athletes because they are fit enough to play two matches of rugby in a row. It’s imperative to keep them on the field, let them grow together and allow combinations to flourish.
Sport24 asked: Rassie Erasmus has returned to SA Rugby. An astute appointment?
Carlo del Fava: Rassie’s appointment at SA Rugby was a smart move. I’m still in touch with a number of former Irish players because I played in the same league as them and they tell me that Rassie is hugely respected for what he managed to achieve in a relatively short space of time at Munster. The mentality he instilled at Munster and the systems he put in place were second to none. His bosses at SA Rugby now need to give him a blank canvas and afford him the freedom to work his magic behind the scenes. The men in suits at SA Rugby need to empower Rassie to do what he does best and they must leave him to it. Rassie would definitely covet the Springbok head coaching positon at some stage. I think they have been grooming him for a while to get him in that position but, for now, Coetzee is still in charge with two years to run on his contract. Rassie is so well-known and is a hero of South African rugby and can add value in any capacity. SA Rugby must look after Rassie and allow him free rein to implement the systems which he put in place so successfully overseas. If Rassie can take what he did at Munster and he is given the freedom to do that within a Springbok environment then it’s going to translate into something powerful for SA rugby. I don’t think South Africa’s administrators are more amateur than their overseas counterparts but, due to the sheer volume of players in SA, the expertise of specialist coaches is diluted because they have to spread themselves so thin. Having had first-hand experience of the Irish system, Rassie will modify the SA rugby model.
Sport24 asked: Do you believe World Rugby is winning the fight against doping?
Carlo del Fava: I was 20-years-old when I failed a drugs test and served a two-year ban from the sport. I believe doping at senior professional level is definitely under control today. The players are tested all the time - in-season and out of season. Taking performance-enhancing drugs is not something you can get away with in rugby owing to everything that World Rugby have put in place. I would have told my younger self to have had more confidence in my ability rather than look to bulk up with an anabolic steroid. I have learned that it’s not the physicality that actually makes you a great player; it’s your mental toughness that is going to propel you to the next level. Technically, I was good enough to play, but physically I wasn’t big enough according to the culture in which we existed. I believe that mentality has shifted because all shapes and sizes are now playing top-level rugby. When you advance to the professional level, there is simply no way you can get away with doping owing to the infrastructure World Rugby has implemented. However, at schoolboy level the reality is that we still have a long way to go in the fight against doping. In my book, it revolves around creating awareness and changing mindsets. It’s about letting younger players know that it’s not all about size. Technical ability and mental toughness can get you further than physical prowess.
Sport24 asked: What is your appraisal of the Italian side under Conor O’Shea?
Carlo del Fava: Italy have really made huge strides as a team and it’s not just head coach Conor O’Shea who has proved instrumental. The way in which Mike Catt has been implementing Italy’s kicking and exit strategy is brilliant and Marius Goosen has been superb as a defence consultant. Goosen is fluent in Italian, having played his rugby in Italy for so long, and he can get his message across quickly. However, someone that is an unsung hero and who very few people speak about is Giampiero de Carli. He is an ex-Italian prop, who operates as the forwards coach. He is brilliant at his job and coaches the players on how to destroy an opposition maul and how to win your lineouts in the right areas of the field. Last year, against the Springboks in Florence, the way the Italian pack dominated the South Africans is what won the game for them. It was neither a pretty nor expansive game from the Azzurri, but it was all through De Carli’s tactics which destroyed the South African maul. As a consequence, the visitors couldn’t generate any go-forward. De Carli is highly influential and if he gets that recipe right against South Africa on Saturday, it’s going to prove hard work for the visitors to gain ascendancy. Last year’s 20-18 victory over South Africa is definitely up there as one of the greatest moments in Italian rugby. Beating South Africa in Florence was a massive result because it was the first time that Italy had defeated one of the southern hemisphere’s super tier-one nations.
Sport24 asked: Your thoughts ahead of the 14th Test between the two nations?
Carlo del Fava: From a South African point of view, the saying of once bitten, twice shy is applicable. They weren’t expecting the Italians to come out like they did last year, but they are definitely not going to underestimate Italy in Padova. For us, Padova is a brilliant venue - we nearly beat Australia twice there - and it’s one of the rugby strongholds in Italy. A huge amount of national team players hail from Padova and, compared to any other city in Italy, it’s a rugby-centric place, which is why they have chosen to play against the Springboks there. Frenchman Romain Poite will be the man in the middle on Saturday and he is highly efficient at refereeing the scrum. If Italy play to their strengths at scrum time, I think they will get plenty of penalties in their favour. In terms of Wilco Louw, with his first few scrums in particular, I’ve observed that his feet are set really far back. I don’t know if it’s a habit which they haven’t picked up yet, but his feet are so far back that when he is under pressure, he has got nowhere to go but down. De Carli is someone who will pick that up and Italy may target Louw. Some Bok supporters are worried about Poite. It’s true that he struggles to let the game flow and doesn’t allow much advantage to be played. However, I don’t think South African supporters should be overly concerned because their team has encountered worse referees over the years. South Africa head into the Test as favourites, but I will be supporting the Italian underdogs. My family is Italian and our blood is blue. I was born in South Africa, however, I had the privilege of playing for Italy for many years and it’s something I hold really close to my heart. I am proud to have been part of the Italian set-up. The fixture will be brilliant, but my allegiance definitely lies with Italy.
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