All Blacks v Italy: Coach Kieran Crowley keeps NZ rugby's Italian connection going

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Kieran Crowley will be out to “get the All Blacks moniker” out of his players’ minds as he prepares for a daunting first assignment as Italy’s rugby coach.

Crowley – who had 35 tests as an All Black fullback between 1983 and 1991 – will continue the Azzurri’s proud Kiwi lineage when his side take the field against world rugby’s number one ranked side in Rome on Saturday (Sunday NZ time).

Kieran Crowley is heading back to Italy to coach their national rugby team.

SIMON O’CONNOR/Stuff

Kieran Crowley is heading back to Italy to coach their national rugby team.

‘Colt’ Crowley – whose Kaponga dairy farm is about 40km from the Barrett brothers’ at Pungarehu – will become the third ex-All Black to coach Italy after 1970s prop Brad Johnstone (2000-2002) and star 1980s wing John Kirwan (2002-05).

“I’ve just come in, this is our first game; it’s a pretty good game to get first up,” Crowley told Sky Sport’s The Breakdown Show this week.

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“We’ve had 10 days preparation and we are going up against the world’s No 1 team that’s been playing together for the last four months.”

Crowley claimed he and his coaching staff were “just sorting [the game plan] out at the moment”, but confirmed there’d be “a lot of focus on defence”.

He spoke on The Breakdown of the challenges faced in assembling a team from just two professional clubs – Benetton (Crowley’s former club) and Zebre.

“Both teams’ No 15s are foreign players, there are no Italians playing at 15 in Italy, and it’s the same in other positions… so the Italian boys aren’t getting the experience they need in certain positions.”

Crowley plans to eventually integrate some younger players – though he will go with experience against the All Blacks.

“Hopefully by the end of the [2022] Nations and going into the summer tour we will have developed a style we can take forward into the World Cup in two years time.”

Italy – pictured in 2021 against England – have won just three of their last 20 tests and haven't beaten a Six Nations opponent since 2015.

Alastair Grant/AP

Italy – pictured in 2021 against England – have won just three of their last 20 tests and haven’t beaten a Six Nations opponent since 2015.

A seasoned coach who took charge of Canada at two World Cups, Crowley hopes to help his players not get too over-awed at the prospect of meeting the All Blacks.

“You’ve to take the All Blacks moniker out of it; it’s just New Zealand. Just another country against another country. Yes, they play well … but what we’ve got to get into these Italian boys, they’ve got to get some self-belief.

“I find the coaching over here is really focussed on the negative style of play, we’ve got to give the boys a bit of confidence.

“Sure, we are up against a hell of a challenge this weekend, but I would hope that our performance that we put on the paddock will give us a little bit of credibility and respect around the place.

“That’s the only way we can move ourselves forward … because our record’s not great and we’ve got to change that.”

Kieran Crowley in 2007 as Taranaki’s head coach.

Mike Scott/Stuff

Kieran Crowley in 2007 as Taranaki’s head coach.

Crowley’s been coaching in Italy since 2016 and knows “Italians are great … they’ll run through a brick wall for you”.

The 60-year-old former All Blacks selector won’t have any Kiwis in his squad this weekend, but 11 have worn the Italian jersey in the past.

Italy's Kiwi comrades Jayden Hayward (L) and Dean Budd celebrate Budd's try against Canada at the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan.

Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

Italy’s Kiwi comrades Jayden Hayward (L) and Dean Budd celebrate Budd’s try against Canada at the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan.

Aaron Persico – a Wellington flanker with Italian parentage – was the first in 2000, coming off the bench against Scotland to pack down opposite his one-time Petone clubmate Martin Leslie, who reportedly greeted him with: “What are we doing after? The usual?”

Northlander Matt Phillips is so far the only Kiwi to score a try for Italy against the All Blacks, a consolation touchdown in a 70-7 defeat at the 2003 World Cup.

“It made a bit of difference to cross the line against the All Blacks,” No 8 Phillips told The New Zealand Herald in Melbourne. “It was a bit special playing against New Zealand because, obviously, I was born there and knew a few of the boys who I was playing against. It was a bit different almost singing both national anthems before the game, too.”

Italy achieved ‘peak Kiwi’ against the All Blacks in a 59-10 defeat in Rome in 2004 when Persico, halfback Paul Griffen, first five-eighth Remi Whakarua and fullback Kaine Robertson opposed their native New Zealanders.

New Zealand All Black Rodney So'oialo lines up Italy's Kaine Robertson in a 76-14 win at the 2007 World Cup in Marseille.

Ross Setford/NZPA

New Zealand All Black Rodney So’oialo lines up Italy’s Kaine Robertson in a 76-14 win at the 2007 World Cup in Marseille.

Robertson and Griffen were still around for the 2007 when Italy were thumped 76-14 by the All Blacks in the World Cup opener in Marseille. “I think we made a bit of an error where we were told not to face the haka,” Robertson told Stuff on his return home in 2015. “Us Kiwi boys tried to explain that it is something you are not meant to do, but we had a vote on it and we lost by a couple of votes. We did not face it, and we got what we deserved.”

The Kiwi connection continued through to the All Blacks’ last visit to Rome in 2018 where ex-Northland lock Dean Budd and former Taranaki fullback Jayden Hayward were in the Azzurri side humbled 66-3.

ITALY’S NZ-BORN RUGBY INTERNATIONALS

Aaron Persico carries the ball for Italy against Canada t the 2003 Rugby World Cup.

Nick Laham/Getty Images

Aaron Persico carries the ball for Italy against Canada t the 2003 Rugby World Cup.

AARON PERSICO (56 tests, 2 tries, 2000-2006).A Lower Hutt flanker out of St Patrick’s College Silverstream, Persico became the first Kiwi to represent Italy, qualifying through family heritage. Played against the All Blacks at the 2003 World Cup.

Matthew Phillips of Italy is tackled by Aurelien Rougerie of France in 2002.

Phil Cole/Getty Images

Matthew Phillips of Italy is tackled by Aurelien Rougerie of France in 2002.

MATT PHILLIPS (14 caps, 3 tries, 2002-2003) A Kaitaia loose forward who had one NPC game for Northland. Famous as the first foreigner to represent Italy under residential criteria in 2002 and for becoming the only Kiwi to score a test try for Italy against the All Blacks at the ’03 World Cup.

Italy player Scott Palmer secures the ball as Waik
AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - JULY 01: Italy player Scott Palmer secures the ball as Waikato's Derek Maisey runs in during the rugby match between Waikato and Italy played at Waikato Stadium, Saturday. Waikato won the game 233. (Photo by Dean Purcell/Getty Images)

Getty Images/Getty Images

Italy player Scott Palmer secures the ball as Waik
AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND – JULY 01: Italy player Scott Palmer secures the ball as Waikato’s Derek Maisey runs in during the rugby match between Waikato and Italy played at Waikato Stadium, Saturday. Waikato won the game 233. (Photo by Dean Purcell/Getty Images)

SCOTT PALMER (12 tests, 2 tries 2002-04). The Palmerston North backrower won his first Italian cap under John Kirwan in 2002. Was also part of the 2003 World Cup winning squad.

Rima Wakarua kicks at goal in Italy's 2003 Rugby World Cup win over Canada.

Chris Ivin/Getty Images

Rima Wakarua kicks at goal in Italy’s 2003 Rugby World Cup win over Canada.

RIMA WAKARUA (11 tests, 15 con, 22 pen, 2003-05). Plucked from Italy’s second tier, the Aucklander was selected for the ’03 World Cup, making his test debut there against Tonga. The first five-eighth went on to score 99 points – the most by a New Zealander in Italy colours – and won six of his 11 internationals. Coached in Italy after hanging up his boots.

Italy's Kiwi halfback Paul Griffen makes a break against Ireland in 2009.

Stu Forster/Getty Images

Italy’s Kiwi halfback Paul Griffen makes a break against Ireland in 2009.

PAUL GRIFFEN (42 tests, 1 try, 1 con, 1 pen, 2004-09). A halfback who represented West Coast and Canterbury before saying arrividerci. First selected for Italy in 2004, he was surprisingly overlooked for the 2007 World Cup, but returned for the 2009 Six Nations. Still lives in Calvisano, where he played for 14 years.

Italy's Kaine Robertson makes a break against New Zealand in the international rugby test AMI Stadium, Christchurch, New Zealand, Saturday, June 27, 2009. Credit:NZPA / Wayne Drought

WD

Italy’s Kaine Robertson makes a break against New Zealand in the international rugby test AMI Stadium, Christchurch, New Zealand, Saturday, June 27, 2009. Credit:NZPA / Wayne Drought

KAINE ROBERTSON (47 tests, 14 tries, 2004-10). One of Italy’s most successful Kiwi recruits, Robertson was an Auckland Grammar first XV teammate of All Blacks wing Doug Howlett, but moved to Italy straight out of school. A wing or fullback, he pulled on the Italy jersey for the first time in 2004. Scored a try in Italy’s first away win in Six Nations history, a 37-17 rout of Scotland in 2007. Went to the World Cup that year, but injuries cost him a shot at the 2011 tournament in New Zealand. Played for Viadana until 2014.

Josh Sole had 47 tests for Italy after moving from New Zealand.

Matthew Lewis/Getty Images

Josh Sole had 47 tests for Italy after moving from New Zealand.

JOSH SOLE (47 tests, 4 tries, 2005-11). Another loosie who began his Kiwi career in his native Waikato and ended it with Bay of Plenty in 2016. In between, he played for Viadana, Airioni and Zebre. Born in Hamilton to Italian parents, he made his Italy debut against Argentina in 2005 and was in the 2007 World Cup squad.

Kiwi Kelly Haimona tackles Jamie Roberts in Italy's clash with Wales in 2016.

Stu Forster/Getty Images

Kiwi Kelly Haimona tackles Jamie Roberts in Italy’s clash with Wales in 2016.

KELLY HAIMONA (11 tests, 7 con, 17 pen, 2014-2016). A Rotorua Boy’s High School product who played for Bay of Plenty, Haimona was recruited from club rugby in 2011 by an Italian second tier club. The utility back scored 14 points on his Italy test debut a year later, against Samoa. Finished in Italy with Zebre in 2016 – his last test season. Returned home to play for Bay of Plenty, where he later worked as a development officer.

Dean Budd of Italy on the way to scoring against Canada in 2019.

Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

Dean Budd of Italy on the way to scoring against Canada in 2019.

DEAN BUDD (29 tests, 2 tries, 2017-20). This rugged Northland lock/loose forward played for Auckland, the Blues and Northland and had a season in Japan before transferring to Treviso with Benetton in 2012. First capped in 2017 six weeks before his 31st birthday, Budd went on to captain Italy in three tests after leading his Benetton club team. Captained Italy to a crushing win over Canada at the 2019 World Cup, scoring a try. Retired from test footy in 2020.

Italy's Jayden Hayward (L) helps tackle another Kiwi rugby export, Ireland's Bundee Aki in a 2020 Six Nations match.

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Italy’s Jayden Hayward (L) helps tackle another Kiwi rugby export, Ireland’s Bundee Aki in a 2020 Six Nations match.

JAYDEN HAYWARD (27 tests, 1 try, 2017-20). The Taranaki, Highlanders and Hurricanes back began his rugby OE in Perth with the Western Force before bobbing up with Benetton in 2014. Was whisked into the test team three years later, and established himself as fullback through the 2019 World Cup, through to the 2020 Six Nations. Helped Benetton win the 2021 PRO14 Rainbow Cup before returning to live in Perth.

Italy's Jimmy Tuivaiti takes on England's Courtney Lawes. (

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Italy’s Jimmy Tuivaiti takes on England’s Courtney Lawes. (

JIMMY TUIVAITI (6 tests, 2018-2020). Still living in Italy with his wife, Cathrine ( a former Silver Ferns netball shooter), Tuivaiti turned out in North Harbour’s back row before joining Calvisano in 2015. The 33-year-old , who still plays for Zebre, had three starts in his six tests, the last of which came in the 2020 Six Nations against France.