Italy move paying off for defence man Hodges

richard hodges
“Every day I’ve had to work harder than others to get players’ respect,” says Richard Hodges, Italy’s new defence coach.

He’s referring to the fact that, unlike his counterparts across the rest of the Championship, he was never a professional player. It’s something he’s conscious of. “Look at Steve Tandy [Scotland], Felix Jones [England], they all played at the top table,” says the 49-year-old, also factoring in Andy Farrell’s previous defensive roles, as well as Hodges’ mentor, Shaun Edwards (more on whom later). “I haven’t, I’ve spent my whole career being faced with this challenge, and that’s what spurs me on.

“Players will always be your best referee, and I think my coaching style is very much based around relationships and getting the trust of the players. That will be my first challenge with the Italian boys: making sure we develop trust and respect.”

As the longest-serving assistant coach in the history of the URC (in all its previous incarnations), there is not much in the game that will take Hodges by surprise. “I think it means I’ve got a good level of experience I can bring to the party now, and the Italian players are very young in their training history, in all aspects of the game. So with the rest of the coaching group, we can really gel together quite quickly and start on the summer tour to mould this team.”

This summer, Italy will make the long journey to play Tests in Samoa and Tonga. Hodges, with a background in rugby league, has tapped into his contacts from the 13-man game to see where the Azzurri can gain an edge against their Pacific opposition. “It’s something I’ve been speaking to Wigan Warriors about, picking their brains around the collision area for our front row forwards,” he explains. “We’re going to face a similar challenge in Samoa and Tonga, so I’ve been looking to find out what that actually means and what it looks like. The learnings are still very much for rugby union to take from rugby league, and that’s something I like to think I stay ahead of the game with.”

Hodges made the move from Cardiff Rugby to league opponents Zebre nine months ago, leaving behind a city he’s called home for a number of years. He had also become a valued member of several Welsh Rugby Union pathways. He describes the first six months of 2023/24 with Zebre as positive, but adds that the team has “been struggling in the second half of the season for various reasons”. What the experience has readied him for is life with the Azzurri national team, and the move for himself and his family has now proved worthwhile.

Has he mastered the new language yet? “I don’t find it easy,” he says. “The verbs and the grammar… If I can master the rugby language within the first year, I’ll be happy, and in a year’s time I’ll be a lot further on than I am now.”

“I’m excited and grateful. What excites me is the age profile of the Italian side,” he explains. “By the time the next World Cup comes around we’ll have a group of players who are all 40- or 50-cappers who have got some good experience and should be aiming for a minimum quarter-final and beyond. Hopefully Italy can start gaining some respect and start competing harder at the top end of the Six Nations.”

Hodges is effusive in his praise for Italy’s outgoing defence coach, Marius Goosen. “He’s an exceptional bloke as a human being and coach, is Marius,” he says. “Once Gonzalo offered me the job I got in my car and drove to Treviso and we had a nice long lunch together where we just discussed everything around the role. He was obviously ready for a change, and was closely aligned with Kieran [Crowley], so they’ve gone to Japan together.

“But if you look at the last three games, the players were obviously aware Marius was leaving, so it’s a huge mark of their respect for him the way they went out and defended. As a coach, you’re only as good as your last game, so for him to leave having beaten Wales in Wales and put in a fantastic defensive performance was just what he deserved after so many years of service in Italy.”

The stats reveal that in this year’s Guinness Men’s Six Nations, whilst fruitful in many ways for new head coach Gonzalo Quesada’s side, the Azzurri won the most turnovers (17), made the highest number of tackles (972), but also missed the most tackles (157). They were second only to Wales for most points conceded, albeit not too far off the amount shipped by England and France.

When those numbers are read back to Hodges, he offers a rounded view. “The positive is the identity around the breakdown. The negative is you don’t want your team to be making the most tackles in a competition, because you want them to be attacking. Nobody started playing rugby because they like defending and jackalling; they start because they like attacking and scoring tries, so we need to try and flip the possession and territory statistics so that we are tackling less.

“That’s directly aligned to our kicking game, which I’ll have a handle on from a kick-strategy point of view. But I think what you need to do is split this year’s Championship into two parts, because a lot of statistics get skewed due to the first two games [against England and Ireland]. If you then look at it as a three-game series against France, Scotland and Wales, statistically it paints a very different picture. Some of the problems they encountered in the first two games they managed to iron out, but the stats from those two games paint [an unfair] picture of the final overall stats, whereas we just need to carry on from where they were in those final three games. There are certain little subtleties to their defence which I can change to make us even quicker, so there will be a huge emphasis on that.”

Revolving Italy’s defence around the skillset of their playing personnel is key, according to Hodges. “When you have big, physical men who have a presence and speed - the likes of Brex and Menoncello, Ioane and Lynagh - and a young back row with foot speed - Izekor, Lamaro, Vintcent - it tells me we need to base the system around speed, and around turnovers. I’ll look to improve the solid foundations that are already in place. We will tweak our kick strategy to try and help our defence a bit more. We’ve got some very good defenders in there, but I want them to be defending less than they are at the moment.”

Hodges is an Englishman in a distinctly Latin-flavoured coaching group featuring two Argentines (Quesada and breakdown coach Germán Fernández), an Italian (Andrea Moretti, forwards), and a Frenchman (Philippe Doussy, skills). He feels his background lends itself well to any environment, though. “My first job as a defence coach was with Wales U18s, then with Wales U20s, so I worked under Shaun Edwards for five years,” he says. “Shaun is obviously as northern as they come, a Lancastrian at heart, so he keeps things very simple but powerful, and that’s something that I’ve taken with me right through every day of my coaching career.

“There will be a level of accountability, there will certainly be a level of trust. I like every player to have just one job in defence, so they can go and do that to the best of their ability. If everybody does that you get a collective performance. I’ve learnt so much already and have been in four coaches’ meetings where I’ve been challenged, I’ve learnt, and I’ve been trusted to bring my philosophy and my principles to life. From the very outset, it’s excited me.

“I know it’s going to be a rollercoaster: we’ll have some good days, we’ll have some tough days, but we’ll just stay level-headed and understand what the bigger picture is for Italian rugby.”