Kieran Crowley: The Azzurri head coach transforming Italian rugby

Kieran Crowley 19/3/2022
New Zealand will always be home for Kieran Crowley, but Italy is where his heart is.

New Zealand will always be home for Kieran Crowley, but Italy is where his heart is.

Seven years after the 61-year-old first arrived to take charge of club side Benetton, he has become front and centre of a rejuvenating rugby nation.

More than halfway through his initial three-year contract and the results are there for all to see but Crowley is the first to admit this was not the plan. When he arrived in Italy, there were no dreams of coaching another national side.

And yet under his stewardship, the Azzurri are undoubtedly on the up.

Crowley has cultivated a young squad, full of promise and talent, led by the mercurial fly-half Paolo Garbisi and the electric full-back Ange Capuozzo.

Last year, they secured their first Guinness Six Nations win in seven years with a famous comeback victory away to Wales, while Australia were put to the sword in the Autumn Nations Series.

There is a clear plan, a long-term vision and Crowley is the mastermind behind it all.

“When I first came here, I knew Italy had always had very strong forwards but I didn’t think the skill level was great,” he said this week.

“There are some good young players coming through and a lot of good work has been done on skills.

“I think players are starting to understand rugby more. The development they have from us and from their clubs is helping them be better rugby players.

“If I had to give you an overall impression of Italian rugby players, they are hard workers and they were very passionate. That passion comes on the field and they have a never-give-up attitude.”

Crowley’s coaching pedigree both in Italy and prior to arriving in the country is impressive – but initially he was known for his exploits on the pitch.

As an adventurous full-back, he won 19 caps for the All Blacks and was part of the squad that won the first ever Rugby World Cup in 1987. He even scored a try against Scotland on their 1990 tour of New Zealand, steering his side to a 31-16 win.

As soon as he hung up the boots, Crowley moved into coaching. After a long stint with Taranaki, he coached New Zealand’s Under-19s to World Cup success in 2007 before taking over as the Canada coach.

That was his first senior Test role, although he had previously served as a selector with the All Blacks.

With Canada he twice reached the Churchill Cup final, while the Canadians also finished as runners-up in the Pacific Nations Cup.

He got the opportunity to face the country of his birth while in charge of Canada and ironically, it was his first charge as Italy head coach too.

It’s been quite the journey, but Italy is where he and wife Sue have settled.

“Italy is simply extraordinary,” he said.

“I came to coach Benetton but I really enjoyed it, fell in love with the country.

“There are a lot of places I love, we have been very lucky to have trips around Sardininia and Sicilily. We love Rome and my favourite place is probably Cinque Terre, which is somewhere I didn’t even know about when I came here, then there is Venice and Florence too.

“Italian food is great! It is so simple too, my wife keeps saying we used to make pasta in New Zealand or Canada and put lots of things in it, but here you don’t, it is very simple and it tastes great.

“We didn’t expect to fall in love with it as much as we have.”

Crowley’s first Guinness Six Nations came 12 months ago and, while Italy suffered the odd bloody nose along the way – such as a 33-0 loss to England and 57-6 defeat to Ireland – that win in Cardiff rejuvenated Italian rugby.

He said: “There was a lot of emotion, Marius Goosen our defence coach has been there six years and won his first Six Nations game, you’d think we’d won the World Cup!

“We had some measures to measure ourselves by, not the results, and this gives us a base going forward now.”

Italy have had eight coaches since they joined the Six Nations 23 years ago, and Crowley started the Championship with the best win percentage of all of them.

It is having a clear effect, with the Stadio Olimpico increasingly full and the nation invested in the team.

“Through Covid, there was nobody around but now when you arrive at the train station, or the stadium, there are people around with Italy flags and supporting you. It is very humbling,” Crowley added.

“If you look at the last game, there was 50,000 there, which is a massive crowd for Italy. We feel a duty to put a performance in that makes them want to come back.”

With Garbisi, Capuozzo and Crowley at the helm, it’s a safe bet they will.